H. D. (Henry Duff) Traill.

Coleridge online

. (page 6 of 16)
Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 6 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

ery instance, to impressions from without. This poet can
nobly brace the human heart to fortitude ; but he must
first have seen the leech-gatherer on the lonely moor. The
"presence and the spirit interfused" throughout creation

64 COLERIDGE. [chap.

is revealed to us in moving and majestic words ; yet the
poet requires to have felt it " in the light of setting suns
and the round ocean and the living air" before he feels it
" in the mind of man." But what Wordsworth grants only
to the reader who wanders with him in imagination by lake
and mountain, the Muse of Coleridge, had she lived, would
have bestowed upon the man who has entered into his in-
ner chamber and shut to the door. This, it seems to me,
is the work for which genius, temperament, and intellect-
ual habit would alike have fitted him. For while his feel-
ing for internal nature was undoubtedly less profound, less
mystically penetrating than Wordsworth's, his sensibilities
in general were incomparably quicker and more subtle than
those of the friend in whom he so generously recognised
a master ; and the reach of his sympathies extends to forms
of human emotion, to subjects of human interest which lay
altogether outside the somewhat narrow range of Words-

And, with so magnificent a furniture of those mental and
moral qualities which should belong to " a singer of man
to men," it must not be forgotten that his technical equip-
ment for the work was of the most splendidly effective
kind. If a critic like Mr. Swinburne seems to speak in ex-
aggerated praise of Coleridge's lyrics, we can well under-
stand their enchantment for a master of music like him-
self. Probably it was the same feeling which made Shel-
ley describe France as " the finest ode in the English lan-
guage." With all, in fact, who hold — as it is surely plausi-
ble to hold — that the first duty of a singer is to sing, the
poetry of Coleridge will always be more likely to be classed
above than below its merits, great as they are. For, if we
except some occasional lapses in his sonnets — a metrical


form in which, at his best, he is quite " out of the run-
ning " with Wordsworth — his melody never fails him. lie
is a singer always, as Wordsworth is not always, and Byron
almost never. The ^-Eolian harp to which he so loved to
listen does not more surely respond in music to the breeze
of heaven than does Coleridge's poetic utterance to the
wind of his inspiration. Of the dreamy fascination w-hich
Love exercises over a listening ear I have already spoken ;
and there is hardly less charm in the measure and asso-
nances of the Circassian Love Chant. Christabel again,
considered solely from the metrical point of view, is a veri-
table tour deforce — the very model of a metre for roman-
tic legend : as which, indeed, it was imitated with suffi-
cient grace and spirit, but seldom with anything approach-
ing to Coleridge's melody, by Sir Walter Scott.

Endowed therefore with so glorious a gift of song, and
only not fully master of his poetic means because of the
very versatility of his artistic power and the very variety
and catholicity of his youthful sympathies, it is unhappily
but too certain that the world has lost much by that per-
versity of conspiring accidents which so untimely silenced
Coleridge's muse. And the loss is the more trying to pos-
terity because he seems, to a not, I think, too curiously con-
sidering criticism, to have once actually struck that very
chord which would have sounded the most movingly be-
neath his touch — and to have struck it at the very moment
when the failing hand was about to quit the keys forever.

" Osteudimt terris bunc tantum fata neque ultra
Esse sinunt."

I cannot regard it as merely fantastic to believe that the
Dejection, that dirge of infinite pathos over the grave of

66 COLERIDGE. [cuap. hi.

creative imagination, might, but for the fatal decree which
had by that time gone forth against Coleridge's health and
happiness, have been but the cradle-cry of a new-born po-
etic power, in which imagination, not annihilated but trans-
migrant, would have splendidly proved its vitality through
other forms of song.




The departure of the two poets for the Continent was de-
layed only till they had seen their joint volume through
the press. The Lyrical Ballads appeared in the autumn
of 1798, and on 16th September of that year Coleridge
left Yarmouth for Hamburg with Wordsworth and his sis-
ter.' The purpose of his two companions' tour is not known
to have been other than the pleasure, or mi.xed pleasure and
instruction, usually derivable from foreign travel ; that of
Coleridge was strictly, even sternly, educational. Imme-
diately on his arrival in Germany he parted from the Words-
worths, who went on to Goslar,^ and took up his abode at

* De Quincey's error, in supposing that Coleridge's visit to Ger-
many to "complete his education" was made at an earlier date than
this journey with the Wordsworths, is a somewhat singular mistake
for one so well acquainted with the facts of Coleridge's life. Had we
not his own statement that this of 1798 was the first occasion of his
quitting his native country, it so happens that we can account in
England for nearly every month of his time from his leaving Cam-
bridge until this date.

^ It has only within a comparatively recent period been ascertained
that the visit of the Wordsworths to Germany was itself another re-
sult of Thomas Wedgwood's generous appreciation of literary merit.
It appears, on the incontrovertible testimony of the Wedgwoods' ac-

68 COLERIDGE. [chap.

the house of the pastor at Ratzeburg, with whom he spent
five months in assiduous study of the language. In Jan-
uary he removed to Gottingen. Of his life here during
the next few months we possess an interesting record in
the Early Years and Late Reflections of Dr. Carrlyon, a
book published many years after the events which it re-
lates, but which is quite obviously a true reflection of im-
pressions yet fresh in the mind of its writer when its
materials were first collected. Its principal value, in fact,
is that it gives us Coleridge from the standpoint of the
average young educated Englishman of the day, sufficient-
ly intelligent, indeed, to bo sensible of his fellow-student's
transcendent abilities, but as little awed by them out of
youth's healthy irreverence of criticism as the ordinary
English undergraduate ever has been by the intellectual
supremacy of any "greatest man of his day" who might
chance to have been his contemporary at O.xford or Cam-
bridge. In Dr. Carrlyon's reminiscences and in the quoted
letters of a certain young Parry, another of the English
student colony at Gottingen, we get a piquant picture of
the poet- philosopher of seven -and- twenty, with his yet
buoyant belief in his future, his still unquenched interest
in the world of things, and his never-to-bc-qucnched in-
terest in the world of thought, his even then inexhaustible
flow of disquisition, his generous admiration for the gifts
of others, and his nalive complacency— including, it would
seem, a touch of the vanity of personal appearance — in
his own. " lie frequently," writes Dr. Carrlyon, " recited
his own poetry, and not unfrequently led us further into

counts with their agents at Hamburg, that tlie expenses of all three
travellers were defrayed by their friend at home. The credits opened
for them amounted, during the course of their stay abroad, to some
£2C0. — Miss Meteyard's A Group of Enr/lishnen, p. 99.


the labyrinth of his metaphysical elucidations, either of
particular passages or of the original conception of any
of his productions, than we were able to follow him. At
the conclusion, for instance, of the first stanza of Chris-
tabel, he would perhaps comment at full length upon
such a line as * Tu-whit! — Tu-whoo!' that we might not
fall into the mistake of supposing originality to be its
sole merit." The example is not very happily chosen, for
Coleridge could hardly have claimed " originality " for an
onomatopoeia which occurs in one of Shakspeare's best
known lyrics ; but it serves well enough to illustrate the
fact that he " very seldom went right to the end of any
piece of poetry ; to pause and analyse was his delight."
His disappointment with regard to his tragedy of Osorio
was, we also learn, still fresh. He seldom, we are told,
" recited any of the beautiful passages with which it
abounds without a visible interruption of the perfect com-
posure of his mind." He mentioned with great emotion
Sheridan's inexcusable treatment of him with respect to
it. At the same time, adds his friend, "he is a severe
critic of his own productions, and declares " (this no doubt
with reference to his then, and indeed his constant esti-
mate of Christahel as his masterpiece) " that his best
poems have perhaps not appeared in print."

Young Parry's account of his fellow - student is also
fresh and pleasing. " It is very delightful," he tells a
correspondent, " to hear him sometimes discourse on re-
ligious topics for an hour together. His fervour is par-
ticularly agreeable when compared with the chilling spec-
ulations of German philosophers," whom Coleridge, he
adds, " successively forced to abandon all their strong-
holds." He is "much liked, notwithstanding many pe-
culiarities. He is very liberal towards all doctrines and

70 COLERIDGE. [chap.

opinions, and cannot be put out of temper. These cir-
cumstances give him the advantage of his opponents, who
are always bigoted and often irascible. Coleridge is an
enthusiast on many subjects, and must therefore appear to
many to possess faults, and no doubt he has faults, but he
has a good heart and a large mass of information with,"
as his fellow - student condescendingly admits, " superior
talents. The great fault which his friends may lament is
the variety of subjects which he adopts, and the abstruse
nature of his ordinary speculations, extra homines positas.
They can easily," concludes the writer, rising here to the
full stateliness of youth's epistolary style — " they can easily
excuse his devoted attachment to his country, and his rea-
soning as to the means of producing the greatest human
happiness, but they do not universally approve the mys-
ticism of his metaphysics and the remoteness of his topics
from human comprehension."

In the month of May, 1799, Coleridge set out with a
party of his fellow-students on a walking tour tlirough
the Harz Mountains, an excursion productive of much
oral philosophising on his part, and of the composition of
the Lines on ascending the Broclceyi, not one of the hap-
piest efforts of his muse. As to the philosophising, " he
never," says one of his companions on this trip, *' appeared
to tire of mental exercise ; talk seemed to him a peren-
nial pastime, and his endeavours to inform and amuse us
ended only with the cravings of hunger or the fatigue of
a long march, from which neither his conversational pow-
ers nor his stoicism could protect himself or us." It
speaks highly for the matter of Coleridge's allocutions that
such incessant outpourings during a mountaineering tramp
appear to have left no lasting impression of boredom be-
liind them. The holiday seems to have been thoroughly


enjoyed by the whole party, and Coleridge, at any rate,
had certainly earned it. For once, and it is almost to be
feared for the last time in his life, he had resisted his
besetting tendency to dispersiveness, and constrained his
intelligence to apply itself to one thing at a time. lie
had come to Germany to acquire the language, and to
learn what of German theology and metaphysics he might
find worth the study, and his five months' steady pursuit
of the former object had been followed by another four
months of resolute prosecution of the latter. He attended
the lectures of Professor Blumenbach, and obtained through
a fellow-student notes from those of Eichhorn. He suf-
fered no interruption in his studies, unless we are to ex-
cept a short visit from Wordsworth and his sister, who
had spent most of their stay abroad in residence at Gos-
iar; and he appears, in short, to have made in every way
the best use of his time. On 24th June, 1799, he gave
his leave-taking supper at Gottingen, replying to the toast
of his health in fluent German but with an execrable ac-
cent; and the next day, presumably, he started on his
homeward journey.

His movements for the next few months are incor-
rectly stated in most of the brief memoirs j)refixed to
the various editions of the poet's works — their writers
having, it is to be imagined, accepted without examina-
tion a misplaced date of Mr. Gillman's. It is not the fact
that Coleridge " returned to England after an absence of
fourteen months, and arrived in London the 27th of No-
vember." His absence could not have lasted longer than
a year, for we know from the evidence of Miss Words-
worth's diary that he was exploring the Lake country
(very likely for the first time) in company with her broth-
er and herself in the month of September, 1799. The

72 COLERIDGE. [chap.

probability is that be arrived in England early in July, and
immediately thereupon did the most natural and proper
thing to be done under the circumstances — namely, re-
turned to his wife and children at Nether Stowey, and re-
mained there for the next two months, after which he set
off with the AVordsworths, then still at Alfoxden, to visit the
district to which the latter had cither already resolved upon,
or were then contemplating, the transfer of their abode.

The 27th of November is no doubt the correct date of
his arrival in London, though not "from abroad." And
his first six weeks in the metropolis were spent in a very
characteristic fashion — in the preparation, namely, of a
work which he pronounced with perfect accurac}'^ to be
destined to fall dead from the press. He shut himself up
in a lodging in Buckingham Street, Strand, and by the
end of the above-mentioned period he had completed
his admirable translation of Wallenstein, in itself a perfect,
and indeed his most perfect dramatic poem. The manu-
script of this English version of Schiller's drama was pur-
chased by Messrs. Longman under the condition that the
translation and the original should appear at the same
time. Very few copies were sold, and the publishers, in-
different to Coleridge's advice to retain the unsold copies
until the book should become fashionable, disposed of them
as waste paper. Sixteen years afterwards, on the publica-
tion of Christahel, they were eagerly sought for, and the
few remaining copies doubled their price. It was while
engaged upon this work that he formed that connection
with political journalism which lasted, though with inter-
missions, throughout most of the remainder of his life.
His early poetical pieces had, as we have seen, made their
first appearance in the Morning Post, but hitherto that
newspaper had received no prose contribution from his


pen. His engagement -with its proprietor, Mr. Daniel
Stuart, to whom he had been introduced during a visit to
London in 1797, was to contribute an occasional copy of
verses for a stipulated annual sum ; and some dozen or so
of his poems (notably among them the ode to France and
the two strange pieces. Fire, Famine, and Slaughter and
The Devil's Thoughts) had entered the world in this way
during the years 1798 and 1799.

Misled by the error above corrected, the writers of some
of the brief memoirs of Coleridge's life represent him as
having sent verse contributions to the Morning Post from
Germany in 1799; but as the earliest of these only ap-
peared in August of that year, there is no .reason to sup-
pose that any of them were written before his return to
England. The longest of the serious pieces is the well-
known Ode to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which
cannot be regarded as one of the happiest of Coleridge's
productions. Its motive is certainly a little slight, and its
sentiment more than a little overstrained. The noble en-
thusiasm of the noble lady who, " though nursed in pomp
and pleasure," could yet condescend to " hail the platform
wild where once the Austrian fell beneath the shaft of
Tell," hardly strikes a reader of the present day as remark-
able enough to be worth " gushing " over ; and when the
poet goes on to suggest as the explanation of Georgiana's
having " learned that heroic measure" that the "Whig great
lady had suckled her own children, we certainly seem to
have taken the fatal step beyond the sublime ! It is to be
presumed that Tory great ladies invariably employed the
services of a wet-nurse, and hence failed to win the same
tribute from the angel of the earth, who, usually, while he


"His chariot-planet round the goal of day,

All trembling gazes on the eye of God,"

li COLERIDGE. [chap.

but who on this occasion " a moment turned his awful
face away " to gaze approvingly on the high-born mother
who had so conscientiously performed her maternal duties.
Very different is the tone of this poem from that of
the two best known of Coleridge's lighter contributions
to the Morning Post. The most successful of these, how-
ever, from the journalistic point of view, is in a literary
sense the less remarkable. One is indeed a little aston-
ished to find that a public, accustomed to such admirable
political satire as the Anti-Jacobin, should have been so
much taken as it seems to have been by the rough ver-
sification and somewhat clumsy sarcasm of the DeviVs
Thoughts. The poem created something like a furore,
and sold a large reissue of the number of the Morning
Post in which it appeared. Nevertheless it is from the
metrical point of view doggerel, as indeed the author
admits, three of its most smoothly-flowing stanzas being
from the hand of Southey, while there is nothing in its
boisterous political drollery to put its composition beyond
the reach of any man of strong partisan feelings and a
turn for street-humour. Fire, Famine, and Slaughter, on
the other hand, is literary in every sense of the word, re-
quiring indeed, and very urgently, to insist on its charac-
ter as literature, in order to justify itself against the charge
of inhuman malignity. Despite the fact that " letters four
do form his name," it is of course an idealised statesman,
and not the I'cal flesh and blood Mr. Pitt, whom the sister
furies. Fire, Famine, and Slaughter, extol as their patron
in these terrible lines. The poem must be treated as what
lawyers call an " A. B. case." Coleridge must be supposed
to be lashing certain alphabetical symbols arranged in a
certain order. This idealising process is perfectly easy and
familiar to everybody with the literary sense. The de-


duction for '* poetic license " is just as readily, though it
does not, of course, require to be as frequently, made with
respect to the hyperbole of denunciation as with respect
to that of praise. Nor need we doubt that this deduction
had in fact been made by all intelligent readers long be-
fore that agitating dinner at Mr. Sotheby's, which Cole-
ridge describes with such anxious gravity in his apologetic
preface to the republication of the lines. On the whole
one may pretty safely accept De Quincey's view of the
true character of this incident as related by him in his
own inimitable fashion, namely, that it was in the nature
of an elaborate hoax, played off at the poet's expense.*
The malice of the piece is, as De Quincey puts it, quite
obviously a " malice of the understanding and fancy," and

^ After quoting the two concluding lines of the poem, "Fire's"
rebuke of her inconstant sisters, in the words
"I alone am faithful, I
Cling to him everlastingly,"
De Quincey proceeds : " The sentiment is diabolical ; and the ques-
tion argued at the London dinner-table (Mr. Sotheby's) was ' Could
the writer have been other than a devil ?' . . . Several of the great
guns among the literary body were present — in particular Sir Walter
Scott, and he, we believe, with his usual good nature, took the apolo-
getic side of the dispute ; in fact, he was in the secret. Nobody else,
barring the author, knew at first whose good name was at stake.
The scene must have been high. The company kicked about the
poor diabolic writer's head as though it had been a tennis - ball.
Coleridge, the yet unknown criminal, absolutely perspired and fumed
in pleading for the defendant ; the company demurred ; the orator
grew urgent ; wits began to smofce the case as an active verb, the
advocate to smoke as a neuter verb ; the ' fun grew fast and furi-
ous,' until at length the delinquent arose, burning tears in his eyes,
and confessed to an audience now bursting with stifled laughter (but
whom he supposed to be bursting with fiery indignation), ' Lo, I am
he that wrote it.' "

16 COLERIDGE. [chap.

not of the heart. There is significance in the mere fact
that the poem was deliberately published by Coleridge two
years after its composition, when the vehemence of his
political animosities had much abated. Written in 1796,
it did not appear in the Morning Post till January, 1798.
He was now, however, about to draw closer his connec-
tion with the newspaper press. Soon after his return from
Germany he was solicited to " undertake the literary and
political department in the Morning Post,'''' and acceded to
the proposal *' on condition that the paper should thence-
forward be conducted on certain fixed and announced prin-
ciples, and that he should be neither obliged nor requested
to deviate from them in favour of any party or any event."
Accordingly, from December, 1799, until about midsummer
of 1800, Coleridge became a regular contributor of politi-
cal articles to this journal, sometimes to the number of two
or three in one week. At the end of the period of six
months he quitted London, and his contributions became
necessarily less frequent, but they were continued (though
with two appai'ent breaks of many months in duration)*
until the close of the year 1802. It would seem, however,
that nothing but Coleridge's own disinclination prevented
this connection from taking a form in which it would have
profoundly modified his whole future career. In a letter
to Mr, Poole, dated March, 1800, he informs his friend that
if he " had the least love of money " he could " make sure
of £2000 a year, for that Stuart had offered him half shares

' Sic ill Ussai/.H on his own Times, by S. T. C, the collection of her
father's articles made by Mrs. Nelson (Sara) Coleridge ; but without
attributing strange error to Coleridge's own estimate (in the Bio-
graphia Literaria) of the amount of his journalistic work, it is im-
possible to believe that this collection, forming as it does but two
small volumes, and a portion of a third, is anything like complete.


in bis two papers, the Morning Post and the Courier, if
he would devote himself to them in conjunction with their
proprietor. But I told him," he continues, " that I would
not give up the country and tlie lazy reading of old folios
for two thousand times two thousand pounds — in short,
that beyond £350 a year I considered money a real evil."
Startlingly liberal as this offer will appear to the journalist,
it seems really to have been made. For, writing long af-
terwards to Mr. Nelson Coleridge, Mr. Stuart says : " Could
Coleridge and I place ourselves thirty years back, and he
be so far a man of business as to write three or four hours
a day, there is nothing I would not pay for his assistance.
I would take him into partnership, and I would enable him
to make a large fortune." Nor is there any reason to think
that the bargain would have been a bad one for the pro-
prietor from the strictly commercial point of view. Cole-
ridge in later years may no doubt have overrated the effect
of his own contributions on the circulation of the Morning
Post, but it must have been beyond question considerable,
and would in all likelihood have become far greater if he
could have been induced to devote himself more closely to
the work of journalism. For the fact is — and it is a fact
for which the current conception of Coleridge's intellectu-
al character does not altogether prepare one — that he was

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 6 of 16)