Coleridge as Poet and Man


As imaginative men — novelists, poets, painters, historians — delight in reclothing again and again and presenting under various aspects the famous dead of different epochs, so do we all like to see these artists themselves, as they stand before us in their works, habited anew from time to time. A new edition is somewhat like a newly discovered portrait of the author. It often gilds more than the edges of the pages. In the collection of British Poets who are gathered together in the Riverside edition1 like figures on a classic frieze, motionless yet full of life, Coleridge and Keats go hand in hand ; a companionhood of pain and pleasure which tempts us to discuss them together. But in the space of one essay this would hardly be profitable. Originality, too, demands solitariness so strongly that it is better to consider an original genius alone, even in criticism. The maxim will serve us at least in fixing our attention upon Coleridge separately.

Most poets flower first and strike root afterward. Their earlier poems spring from an impulse powerful out of all proportion to their experience, and bloom to our eyes like mysterious air-flowers, growing rootless, we hardly know how, fed by a vital inspiration of beauty or longing that we cannot define. Later, the song becomes united with the solid ground of fact : study, reflection, observation, actual suffering, or enlarged enjoyment serve as nurture-bringing fibres which, thrown out searchingly in all directions, constantly supply new force to the productive faculty. Where that faculty is deeply and enduringly original the nature of the outgrowth remains always the same essentially, though subject, form, and strength may change. So with Coleridge, for the history of his mind’s supply we must look into his prose works — the multifarious interests there spreading, intersecting, tangled together, wasting as well as absorbing energy — and into the narrative of his life. But in the poems themselves we find, from the beginning, though faint at first, the quality which makes them real,— makes them priceless. To this quality life and character and varied research all ministered.

In the original edition of The Friend, he wrote: “ Long and early habits of exerting my intellect in metrical composition have not so enslaved me but that for some years I have felt, and deeply felt, that the poet’s high functions were not my proper assignment; that many may be worthy to listen to the strains of Apollo, neighbors of the sacred choir and able to discriminate and feel and love its genuine harmonies, yet not therefore called to receive the harp in their own hands, and join in the concert.” This was in 1809, when he had already written most of the poems upon which his fame rests, including the Ancient Mariner. He left out a long passage containing these words from the later edition ; but even had he himself adhered to the opinion, and if much of the claim made for him as a philosopher be allowed, it remains true that his wide studies in history, philosophy, literature, and polities are tributary to his verse. “Poetry is the identity of all knowledges,” he has said in one place. Like Emerson and Matthew Arnold, Coleridge found in rhythmic utterance the last gratification of the desire for perfected form ; but with him it was a greater necessity than it has been with either of these. It soothed his restless spirit by giving melody to passion and sorrow, — the delirium of intellectual and sensuous joy imposed upon the delirium of suffering and annulling it. With Emerson and Arnold it is more a sense of refining workmanship and a desire for reduction or portableness that leads to the choice of verse, — so far as analysis may profess to limit a thing so indefinable and mysterious as the poetic instinct. In minds whose thought (besides falling into the primitive motion of language, namely, rhythm and music) leaves large deposits of prose, the latter gradually chokes the fountain. The golden rill of Emerson’s poetry ceased, while essays still continued to be formed. Matthew Arnold employs himself with putting in position one beautifully polished block of argument after another. And who can say what would have befallen the Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes had Milton not retired from catapultic controversy?

We listen to Matthew Arnold more reverently because of the knowledge that a share of the divine gift has been his also. Similarly, in the poems of Coleridge a thrill reaches us from all that wisdom so ill arranged and cumbrous! y clothed in bis other works, and here, too, are gathered all the divergent rays reflected from his life ; so that in Coleridge as poet we have the man, the thinker, the bard, combined.

It is the sense of a person and a spirit addressing us, as distinguished from a merely argumentative, reasoning mind, that in these cases so endears to us the poetic voice. There is the magic of a tone, here, which even the most original and strongly individualized prose does not always carry in equal degree.

If, for a starting-point, we ask ourselves what elements make up the quality that has given these poems their hold, two naturally present themselves: Coleridge’s sensibility to suffering and sorrow, and that faculty of complete surrender to a vision upborne in melody which — whether we call it poetic rage, divination, possession, or by any other name inadequate as all must be —exercises a kind of odylic sway, mesmerizing not only the listener, but the composer himself.2 The simple instinct for truth, which is every poet’s, does not make the whole of this faculty I speak of. There must be with sncli instinct a gift of supreme musical intuition, so that the minstrel shall wrap himself oblivious in the eddies of his song, and become lost in the magic of his own incantation. The union of this gift and this instinct in high degree does not come to many men. The Hebrew prophets are exponents of it; Pindar grandly exercised it; we find it in Shakespeare, Hugo, Keats, Shelley, Swinburne. Schiller was swayed and sways by it, sometimes ; but not Goethe. Two of our American poets disclose it: Edgar Poe, and Whitman in work like his poem on the death of Lincoln. Readers will at once recognize the mesmeric presence in the Christabel and the Ancient Mariner; but it is nowhere more intense and striking than in the pulsing verse, the abrupt transitions and rhapsodic images of the Kubla Khan.

“ The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves ;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
“ It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such deep delight’t would win me
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware, Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise ! ”

Is it possible to trace the growth of the self-surrendering power exemplified here ?


I have said that Coleridge’s genius blossomed before it had fairly taken root. But many of the earlier buds wore pallid, unhealthy, futile; some even resembling prematurely withered husks. The Poems Written in Youth are obscured with rubbish, from which a few surprising beauties peep out here and there. On the one side we have absurdities like the Kisses, the tepid Monody on a Tea-Kettle, the lines To a Young Ass, its Mother being Tethered near It; a strain aptly continued in the extraordinary title. On Revisiting the Seashore, under Strong Medical Recommendation not to Bathe, which is now somewhat oddly placed among poems of love. But on the other side we have a gracefully imaged allegory, the Time, Real and Imaginary, and among the boyish verses some lines entitled Genevieve, which not only give the name afterward employed in the Love, but also intimate something of the then uncreated beauty of this poem. Of the otherwise valueless little effusion to Sara, too, the closing lines bring us an awakening murmur of the sentimental charm that breathes from a full chord in the Love : —

“ Well-pleased I hear the whispered ‘ No ! ’
The whispered ‘ No ’ — how little meant!
Sweet falsehood, that endears consent!
For on those lovely lips the while
Dawns the soft, relenting smile,
And tempts with feigned dissuasion coy
The gentle violence of joy.”

But what it is to our present purpose especially to note is the muttering of that precocious melancholy, that languid sadness, which, however, had its place in the development of Coleridge’s peculiar fascination. This pensiveness that hung like a net about him, and doubtless often impeded his movements, became a charm to work with when combined with a fertile mood, a congenial theme, and that sudden, rapt inspiration which drew to itself all the writer’s energy, fused and utilized at one heat all his nice investigations in the art of verse, and produced a delicious intoxication of sound and meaning. In the Sigh, dated at the age of twenty-two, he makes preface with these words: —

“ When Youth his faery reign began,
Ere sorrow had proclaimed me man.”

Just what period this faery reign was held to have covered it would be curious to know. Coleridge’s life had assuredly not been a bright and smiling one. To take no more than the scanty evidence of his own allusions, we find him three years before, in an ode on leaving school, exclaiming, in language stereotyped enough,—

“ Ah me! too mindful of the days
Illumed by Passion’s orient rays.
When Peace and Cheerfulness and Health
Enriched me,” etc.

In his autobiographical letters he speaks of himself, even before the time of his father’s death, as having become “ fretful, timorous, and a tell-tale,” tormented by his school-mates; dreamy, slothful, “ inordinately passionate,” and controlled by vanity and a contempt for most of those with whom he came in contact. This is not a happy picture. It was clearly not a “ faery reign.” The reverted gaze and the regret for something past struck the young poet as pleasing and appropriate, when writing at nineteen and twenty-two: accordingly, he adopted that common attitude. But he was sad by temperament, ingloriously mournful both at the beginning and at the high noon of life.

“ And sweeter than the gentle southwest wind
O’er willowy meads and shadowed waters creeping.”

This is the comparison he adopts for love’s first hope, in the earliest of his school-day fragments. It is the willowy meads and shadowed waters, with their slow suggestion of inert sadness, that occupy his fancy. In his tenth sonnet, still during the season of the youthful poems, he harps still on happier years:

“ Yet fair, though faint, their images shall gleam
Like the bright rainbow on a willowy stream.”

He has himself given some explanation of this seeming contradiction between the fact that he had no such bright years to look back to and the fact of his repeatedly speaking as if he had, where — in the lines to a young lady, with a poem on the French Revolution — he confesses, —

“ Much on my early youth I love to dwell,
Ere yet I bade that friendly dome farewell,
Yet, though the hours flew by on careless wing,
Full heavily of sorrow would I sing.
Aye, as the star of evening flung its beam
In broken radiance on the wavy stream,
My soul amid the pensive twilight gloom
Mourned with the breeze, O Lee Boo, o’er thy tomb.”

We can imagine the blue-and-yellowcoated charity boy, pacing the cloisters of the old Christ School, and musing over the death of this other boy, the young prince of the Pelew Islands, who had come to England and perished there by small-pox ; and how this became to him an event of tragic might, a factor in his emotional development.

“No knell that tolled, but filled my anxious eye,
And suffering nature wept that one should die.” 3

In the Lines Written at Shurton Bars, in 1795, a month before his marriage, he tells how, “ Ere peace with Sara came,” it would have been sweet to him to pace alone beneath the lighthouse tower, —

“ And there in black, soul-jaundiced fit
A sad, gloom-pampered man to sit,
And listen to the roar.”

His predilection was for gloom and dread and pity. This, indeed, is the one uniform feature of the juvenile poems which arrests attention. The mood of seemingly causeless melancholy and introverted mourning is inseparable from the youth of most poets ; but in Coleridge the effusions of it are monotonous and open to the charge which, in introducing them, he says is often brought against similar compositions, namely, that of “ querulous egotism.” To a mind coming, as all must, haunted by echoes of Coleridge’s fame, to read these youthful poems for the first time, they will infallibly be disappointing. But, on a review, gleams of the future splendor break out. From the general conventionality of the Monody on the Death of Chatterton spring a few lines beating with the rhythmic ardor that triumphed absolutely in poems of a period not much later. Then there is the noble sonnet on Burke: —

“ Thee stormy Pity and the cherished lure
Of Pomp, and proud Precipitance of soul,
Wildered with meteor fires,” —

a strain of meditative eloquence which, in its way, the poet hardly surpassed at any time; and that other sonnet to Schiller, lifted by a potent and sudden gust of inspiration above his ordinary level at the period, and all athrob with feeling. The Destiny of Nations, giving some hint of his sympathy with popular liberty and progress, is otherwise barren. “ I rest all my poetical credit on the Religious Musings,” he declared, in 1796; but neither this nor the Destiny of Nations are to be named with great or inspired poetry, though in the Musings there are a few strong notes, like echoes in a rocky cañon.

Not until we turn to the Sibylline Leaves, first issued together when the author had reached the age of fortyfour, but mainly produced within a few years after his marriage at twenty-three, do we get the real stress and power of his genius. Here in the Lewti are the softly clouded mood, the evasive yet ensnaring melody, the quick succession of images which we have learned to recognize at the first touch as belonging to his recondite individuality : —

“The moon was high, the moonlight gleam
And the shadow of a star
Heaved upon Tamaha’s stream;
But the rock shone brighter far, —
The rock half sheltered from my view
By pendent boughs of tressy yew:
So shines my Lewti’s forehead fair,
Gleaming through her sable hair.”

And then WE have the beautiful description of the thin cloud in the sky and the swans, their rest broken, moving in moonlight on the river. Not since the early lines on Genevieve had he written anything so direct, so natural, yet so original and alluring. In this poem, of the year 1795 (how different from the Shurton Bars !), he rose at once and with the greatest ease to the fashioning of a perfect nocturne, when nearly everything done before had been weak and very far from perfect. The Ode to the Departing Year (1796) brings with it again something of the mystic passion that we expect from the full-statured Coleridge; and we find a new inspiration in the France, with its grand invocation, and its epode which imparts so noble a joy in liberty. “ While on the sea cliff’s verge I stood,” he says,

“ And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,
Possessing all things with intensest love,
O Liberty, my spirit felt thee there ! ”

Not only individual love, but this allembracing passion as well, had come to mellow his song. His soul had suddenly and swiftly awaked to larger sympathies. From the faint and lachrymose musings and regrets of adolescence; from pinings over Lee Boo and others, and gratitude to Bowles for “ those soft strains ” which soothed him, yet “ the big tear renewed ; ” — from all this he was caught up and carried away by the culmination of a republican and human fervor, roused to indignation against his own selfish England, and to tortured ecstasy over the mingled idealism and atrocity of France. His democratic, possibly agrarian sentiments had appeared in a line here and there before, but had not been lifted into sustained poetic expression until the writing of these odes. His style, too, in the Destiny of Nations and Religions Musings was Cowperized Milton ; the ink, we may say, being dried to some extent with Southey’s sand. He now attained to a voice of his own, and one singularly fresh when compared with those which had given the pitch till then, — Pope, Addison, Goldsmith, Rogers. A year before his marriage, he had said, addressing the “ contemplant spirits ” that hover about the throne of God, —

“ I, haply journeying my immortal course,
Slall sometime join your mystic choir. Till then
I discipline my young and novice heart
In ministeries of heart-stirring song; ”

but the heart was not visibly stirred until the date of the Departing Year. He himself tells us. in those lines to a young lady, before referred to, that it was when slumbering Freedom came and “ scattered battles from her eyes ” that the patriot fire was kindled in him, and his mind forsook those feebler woes that had hitherto absorbed it. This confession to the young lady belongs to the year 1792, and the Ode on France bears the mark of 1797 ; by that time the enthusiasm for freedom had manifested itself in an enduring form.

I am particular about these dates, because we have now to observe a very important fact in the chronology of the poet’s mind. When Coleridge was twenty-two, that is in 1794, after the break in his academic course caused by his enlisting as a light dragoon, he left Cambridge, made a pedestrian tour in Wales, and then joined Southey at Bristol, where he met Miss Fricker, his future wife and the sister of the lady whom Southey afterwards wedded. In October of the next year, he was married. Then two years were passed in a whirlpool of changing plans, postponements of work, removal from place to place, the unsuccessful publication of the Watchman. His first book of poems was printed during this inauspicious beginning of a responsible career. Finally he returned to Stowey, and took a house there. Wordsworth and his sister were neighbors, at Alfoxden, and the happiest epoch in Coleridge’s life followed, crossed though it was by pangs of suffering, haunted by the very palpable ghost of poverty. It was here, also, that he first took opium, to relieve a terrible neuralgic or rheumatic pain. This was on November 5, 1796. In the last days of the next month, he wrote the Ode to the Departing Year. In the following year, note again, he wrote the Ancient Mariner, the Love, the first part of Christabel, the Dark Ladie, the Kubla Khan, and his tragedy of Remorse.

Here is a coincidence of some import. In 1796 he had begun using opium, a habit which clung to him for the best part of his long remaining life ; and in 1797 he composed those several poems which have given him his distinctive fame, — the poems that stand preëminent for that melodious exaltation, that quality of intoxicated style, which, as I have said, is his ruling characteristic. In the genuineness of this rapt Pindaric ecstasy, he is unequaled by any English poet. Are we then to attribute the sudden and prodigal fruition of so unique a form of fantasy, with its attendant marvel of expression, to the operation of opium on the brain?

A similar question has been mooted in the case of Thomas De Quincey, and in an essay upon that writer 4 I tried incidentally to show that the constitution of his mind and body, rather than the use of a drug, gave to his genius its peculiar magnifying power ; that his style, too, instead of gaining in splendor under the influence of opium, was plainly inferior while he was writing immediately under that influence. With Coleridge, as we have just seen, the converse is true. Having accomplished the age of twenty-four, with no more than a few brief bursts of eloquence or delicate rays of beauty, in all his verse, from which greatness might be augured, he subjects himself to laudanum, and at once pours out within a few months that short succession of darkly beautiful, unsurpassable chants that are to make him immortal. Yet we must not give too much weight to this as a relation of cause and effect. If emanations so wonderful were due to opium, they should have continued with the prolonged taking of opium. Its stimulating effect would in time be weakened ; but since the same mind went on producing poetry, we should expect to see the peculiar opium quality remanifest itself from time to time. But it did not do so with Coleridge. This year of opulent achievement passed, — the year 1797, — Coleridge continued poetic composition, from which, however, the special visionary power we are considering was almost wholly absent. Its dreamy radiance rests a while on the few lines written for the beginning of the Wanderings of Cain, and streams through the second part of Christabel; but it is weaker than in the Kubla. The fact that this poem rose in the author’s mind while he was asleep from the effect of an opiate is pertinent to our inquiry. And here it may be said that portions of the drama of Remorse might have received their color in part from “ wildlyworking visions” induced by laudanum. Isidore in the cavern seems to describe to Ordonio the very sensations of horror recorded by De Quincey and others as proseeding from opium, even to the fine, needle-pointed pricking of the skin : —

“ An arm of frost above and from behind me
Plucked up and snatched me backward.
If every atom of a dead man’s flesh
Should creep, each one with a particular life,
Yet all as cold as ever — ’t was just so!
Or bad it drizzled needle-points of frost
Upon a feverish head made suddenly bald.”

This passage is a direct transcript of the pains of opium, but evidently of the pains in recollection. It cannot, therefore, be called an example of influence. Moreover, it is well to remind ourselves that the peculiarities of the Remorse, the lurid and phantom-like play of incident and emotion, stand in no more need of physiological explanation than Byron’s Manfred. We cannot so easily set bounds to the swing of the unaided imagination. Let us admit that without the opiate and a passage from Purchas’s Pilgrimage acting on Coleridge’s brain, we should not have had the Kubla. It is equally true that we should not have had it if the brain had been another than Coleridge’s. Every poet has his main productive epoch, be it shorter or longer : we have seen how it came early to Coleridge, bringing him the crown of his poetic existence, and in its full glory left him almost as the year did. Nothing could have been more natural than that a quick ripening of his genius should follow upon marriage ; it took place as soon as he gave himself time to rest in one spot. The presence of Wordsworth, too, probably stimulated him. A certain amount of ill health and the interposition of opium would also heighten his sensibility. But all that these or other agencies could effect would be to bring out that power of creative harmony that was in him from his birth.


We have now in some measure explained to ourselves the growth of the self-surrendering power, the capacity for yielding to an intoxication of melodious sound and mystic sense, which, we had set out to study. But we by no means explain that rhapsodic gift. It is something beyond explanation. Could we read into the dim, ancestral history of the Coleridgean mind, we should at least be able to establish some of the sources of his mental endowment; ascertain what race put the controlling poetic instinct into his blood ; and how the hidden fountain of tendency had collected itself in one brain after another, until at last it jetted up with dazzling rainbow sparkle in the poetry of this modern and unexampled bard. Bard he truly was, as Lamb in a famous passage called him (though doubtless using the word conventionally) ; for the supreme quality of his inspiration, on which we must dwell continually, was akin to that of the harpers, whose voices sounded anciently along the valleys of legendary Wales or in the heroic courts of Ireland. Among the verses of his boyish years are found some lines imitated from Ossian, and the Complaint of Ninathoma, besides a love-song from the Welsh,— the last more redolent of modern fancy than of antique bardic feeling; but its nativity is suggestive. At all events, these early scraps show the poet’s sympathy with Ossian, even if we must confess that, in the manner of other poets who have versified McPherson’s adaptations, he utterly lost their spirit in adding to them rhythm and metre. He was moved by the Ossiauic chants, which, as well as the Welsh romances, are Celtic, and the peculiar, identifying genius of the Christabel and the Ancient Mariner is also purely Celtic in its nature. The Suggestion of this note would of course be found in old Scotch and English ballads, whence he probably took it; but I cannot rid myself of a belief that there was a deeper connection than this, a vein of ancestral sympathy that worked to produce the transfigured beauty of old Celtic genius which we see in Coleridge. Great sensibility and an aversion to the actual are traits of the Celtic mind. The poet’s tearfulness in his youthful songs; his extreme susceptibility to enthusiasm, despair, and pain ; his revolt against the limits of circumstances, and alternate reachings after relief through stimulants and narcotics, or through research into spiritual truths, and the bent of his mind towards the supernatural are all indicative of the two traits just mentioned. It is probable that in future the study of English literature, and in especial poetry, will receive an enlarged meaning and take a deeper drift from the sifting of race tendencies. But Coleridge, not altogether conscious of the secret of his power, ceased to follow the lure of supernaturalism ; and even in so fine a ballad as that of Alice Du Clos — a product of his last period — there is more of the regular ballad style and succinct, connected action, with less of deep, inner music and shadow-woven beauty, than in his greatest poems. He unhappily left what none but he could do, to write poems resembling more nearly what others were capable of.

Different as the later poems are in form and direction, an inward harmony, a fine balance of parts, filled some portions of them with superb beauty. Indeed, I have heard the poet Lowell quote, as embodying the music of the language perhaps more completely than any other four lines, these from the poem On a Cataract: —

“It embosoms the roses of dawn,
It entangles the shafts of the noon,
And into the bed of its stillness
The moonshine sinks down as in slumber.”

Each verse of this possesses a rhythmic being of its own, though the first two verses and the last two have a structure common to themselves. And how wonderfully. with the change from the anapestie measure of the second to the amphibrachs of the third, the melody glides into that restful cadence,—

“The moonshine sinks down as in slumber!”

This was written well on in life. Other passages of signal mellifluousness may be found here and there in the blank verse ; for although in this metre Coleridge was weak at first, and never so completely a master as in others, he attained to a mellowness in it, during the latest period, productive of fine effects. The Hymn in the Vale of Chamouni seems to be pitched to a solemn organ accompaniment; and in that most generous and touching address to Wordsworth, after hearing him read his Prelude, there are chords of sweetness so phrased that we almost fancy their resonance broken by half-checked sobs. In Glycine’s song, in the second act of Zapolya, there is an exquisite recurrence of the old melodiousness and picturing power of youth in this glimpse of the “enchanted bird” which the girl tells of : —

“He sank, he rose, he twinkled, he trolled
Within that shaft of sunny mist;
His eyes of fire, his beak of gold,
All else of amethyst! ”

Although Zapolya did not come before the world until twenty years after the composition of Remorse, this song of Glycine’s carries us back to that great year of production from which the tragedy dates, with its incantation : —

“And at evening evermore,
In a chapel on the shore,
Shall the chanter, sad and saintly,
Yellow tapers burning faintly,
Doleful masses chant for thee,
Miserere Domine ! ”

In recalling these last verses, we can almost imagine that it is Poe who speaks. Poe no doubt studied Coleridge in a receptive mood; but he likewise had an inborn sense for the supernatural, and he was of Irish descent. It is therefore worth remarking that in this American poet, of admitted originality, inventive in metre and captivated with wayward melody, wherein he was no mean master, should be found so clear a correspondence with the peculiar quality of Coleridge which I have ventured to call Celtic.

The visit of Wordsworth and Coleridge to Germany, in 1798, had no special influence on the founder of the new school, but on Coleridge’s career it had a decided effect. It led him on into the study of German speculation, thus giving greater strenuousness to his always eager propensity for metaphysics. It resulted in a brilliant poetic achievement, the translation of Wallenstein, which lives to-day almost as an original English poem. It also marked an immediate and great change in the character of his poetic work. The German genius, into which he had entered so deeply, would inevitably oppose itself to a further development of that rhapsodic power which is so un-German in character. Principal Shairp discovers in the Ancient Mariner and Christabel “those very mental elements in solution which, condensed and turned inward, would find their most congenial place in ‘ the exhausting atmosphere of transcendental ideas.’ ” There could hardly be a better witness to the truth of our theory. The momentum in those poems is a flight towards the ideal, transcending experience and entering into the supernat ural. They also involve, in a veiled poetic aspect, questions of sin and punishment, the struggle of good and evil. But all this is blended, fused in the whirl of the writer’s seer-like frenzy, and the succession of his visions and harmonies. The Druidic spirit was, according to our knowledge, highly transcendental for that age ; but, imbuing forms like these of Coleridge’s poetry, it gives us something as different in effect to methodical German speculation as a mystical religious dance is unlike a carefully argumentative sermon. Yet, even so, Mr. Shairp recognizes in this wilder and unreasoned shape the mental elements which, when condensed, would give as a result transcendental ideas. Such they did, in fact, give ; but modern German transcendental. After his visit to Germany, the Saxon in Coleridge led the Celt a captive; and the prevailing scope of his later poetry is therefore GermanEnglish, softened with gentle melodiousness, touched with grace of the classics, but rarely holding a gleam of the old clear fire which first made sacred the altar of his genius.

One of the tenderest among the short poems — perhaps the most lovely of all in its sweet affectionateness of reverie — is that entitled The Day-Dream,5 feignedly addressed by an emigrant to his absent wife. It was written in Germany, when the poet was absent from his family, and breathes of love and longing in these delicious lines : —

“ I saw our couch, I saw our quiet room,
Its shadows heaving by the fire-light gloom:
All o’er my lips a subtle feeling ran,
All o’er my lips a soft and breeze-like feeling, —
I know not what, — but had the same been stealing
“ Upon a sleeping mother’s lips, I guess
It would have made the loving mother dream
That she was softly bending down to kiss
Her babe, that something more than babe did seem,
A floating presence of its darling father,
And yet its own dear baby self far rather!
“Across my chest there lay a weight so warm,
As if some bird had taken shelter there ;
And lo! I seemed to see a woman’s form —
Thine, Sara, thine ? Oh joy, if thine it were! ”

Here is the murmur of the tempered lute, not the sweep of the stricken harp, though the song has Coleridge’s individuality in both its atmosphere and motion. That repetition, with variation, of the phrase “All o'er my lips,” and so on, is very characteristic, But, except for the fancy of the bird sheltering on his breast, all is plain description ; etherealized by being charged with emotion, yet exact and plain. Now, if we take this disposition to picture with simpleness and clearness, and to depend for the effect upon well-defined emotion, and if we then add to this the reflective and allegorical imagination revealed in that work of his boyhood, Time, Real and Imaginary, we have the governing forces that gave Coleridge his themes and his methods in poetry, after thirty. The piece referred to may he given here, for clearness’ sake: —


On the wide level of a mountain’s head
(I knew not where, but ’t was some faery place),
Their pinions, ostrich-like, for sails outspread,
Two lovely children run an endless face,
A sister and a brother!
That far outstripp’d the other;
Yet ever runs she with reverted face,
And looks and listens for the boy behind;
For he, alas, is blind!
O'er rough and smooth with even step he pass'd,
And knows not whether he be first or last.

This is like a fragment of sculptured marble; a piece of beautiful Greek relief, suddenly unearthed after an age of repose. Its plastic quality is perfect, its expression serene. The same characteristics reappear in those poems of latter manhood, The Pang more Sharp than All, and Love’s Apparition and Evanishment; more ruggedly again in the Hymn to the Earth. The gentleness of feeling which we have been touched by in The Day-Dream also imbues the fragmentary lament, The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-Tree, wherein the lines rock themselves away into the closing silence, as a boat sleeps upon a gradually subsiding sea after a tempest. This tender, swelling sadness and this chaste imagination, suffusing objects of reflective thought, color other poems, like The Nightingale, Youth and Age, The Visionary Hope, The Garden of Boccaccio ; it is needless to detail them all. As Coleridge grew older the skill in epigram, which seems to have been his in early manhood, coöperated with a growing tendency to narrow his poetry into channels of specific reflection, so that the pages representing his later life are filled with pieces of greater brevity, condensed and pointed. Nowhere does he reach a higher level in this kind than in that noble poem, Complaint and Reproof, where the voice of eternity is given back in an echo deeply and resonantly human : —

“ Has he not always treasures, always friends,
The good great man ? — three treasures, love and light
And calm thoughts regular as infant’s breath;
And three firm friends, more sure than day and night,—
Himself, his Maker, and the angel Death.”

Wide asunder as the poles these meditative poems appear, from the mystic measure, the wild and terrible images and fierce coloring of the Ancient Mariner, or the dim, soft, eerie atmosphere of the Christabel. Yet the axis of one imagination, one mind, connects them.

With all his shaping power and opulence of language, — full Of sympathy as he was, too, for the genius of Wordsworth, which went to the real as to the very source of its strength, and inaugurated the modern nature worship, — we look nearly in vain to Coleridge for any revivifying magic that shall bring before us the spirit, color, and form of natural beauty in imperishable garb of poetry. It is significant that the Biographia Literaria, in its elaborate defense and careful scrutiny of Wordsworth, gives comparatively little heed to his fresh simplicity in the description and interpretation of nature, while it provides a penetrating and comprehensive analysis of the essence and language of poetry. It is true, in This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison, there are touches of careful observation of out-door sights and sounds ; but the enumeration is buoyed up by no deep sentiment ; only the tame reflection comes in, at length,

“ That nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure.”

A graceful and sonorous idyl in the earlier Sibylline Leaves, by name The Picture ; or, The Lover’s Resolution, — which hints of Theocritus, and might easily have furnished Tennyson with a model for some of his first short blankverse tales, — contains by far the best, indeed the only deliberate and sustained, description of nature that he has left. There are a few intimate and loving glimpses to be had through its pages, as in

“ the pebbly brook
That murmurs with a dead yet tinkling sound.”

It was in this poem that he gave the birches their famous name, “ the ladies of the wood ; ” and these following lines were not written by a man incapable of conveying the sentiment of wood-life : —

“ Sweet breeze! thou only, if I guess aright,
Liftest the feathers of the robin’s breast,
That swells its little breast, so full of song,
Singing above me on the mountain-ash.”

I do not say, he was wholly incapable of rendering the external beauty of earth, sea, and sky ; but he did not develop the germ of appreciation for these things that lay within him, and it was not the errand of his genius so to do. He was much more at ease in picturing the watersnakes that played in elfish light on the still and awful red of the charmed water, blue, glossy green, and velvet black, around the Mariner’s ship. Swinburne pertinently complains that this most wonderful of ocean tales has hardly enough of “ the air and savor of the sea.” But Coleridge would not have been the true Coleridge, had he imported these into it. In one place he rashly proclaims that “ in nature there is nothing melancholy ; ” but had his proposition as to the cheerfulness of nature been true, and himself confined to that inspiration, his genius would have fared ill.

“ Oh, the one life within us and abroad,
That meets all motion and becomes its soul,”

was an exclamation truer to his real instinct, which finds its full utterance in that glorious strophe of the Dejection, beginning,

— 11 we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud ” !

The beautiful and beauty-making power which enables us so to envelop the earth, Coleridge in this same ode attributes to joy, the joy of the pure. It matters not that Coleridge’s joy was oftenest joy in sorrow. Certainly the spell of every poet arises from his rejoicing in himself, in the vibration of manifold feelings across his nature, in his rhythmic gift, in the powers of his mind and heart for delight, or pain, or thought; but the way in which that spell shall be exercised, what objects it will lay hold of, is determined by causes too occult for explanation. Coleridge never put nature under enchantment except in those few poems which cast the peculiar, visionary, not wholly natural light of his own spiritual interior upon it. His dramatic works, again, have little objectivity. Poets have stood for many different things, accordingly as their genius has provided a lens for this or that class of phenomena, this or that phase of intellectual striving: Shakespeare being the poet of human nature in action, Dante of Middle Age belief, Byron the poet of revolt. But Coleridge was preëminently the poet of his own mind.


In this fact we seize the link between those widely dissimilar kinds of poetry which Coleridge produced. His imagination, being interior, — not working in the usual exterior way upon nature, men, history, fable, but upon what it found within, — gave us first poems like the Lewti, Love, Christabel, and the Ancient Mariner, which were not daylight nor moonlight poems, but poems illuminated solely by the singular genius that shone in the writer’s brain and made a separate sphere for them to move in. When afterward the creative impulse was checked by necessities, misfortunes, and anguish, in other words the whole complex of the man’s personal circumstances, this interior imagination took another turn, and occupied itself with the expression of moods, reflections upon life and love, terse sentences of summarized experience. In this way, as I said on my opening page, after the first impetuous blooming of those flowers which seemed almost without an origin, the fibres of experience and suffering connected the poet’s after-blossoms definitely with the earth. But these, changed as they were outwardly from the first growth, retained the same essence, the same interior and inclosed imagination, working now with other substance.

Before this change had reached its height, another had begun. From being the poet of his own mind, Coleridge also became the prose annalist of its progress and expounder of its philosophic and religious struggles. Perhaps we ought to substitute for progress, or progression, digression and deviation. This is not the place, nor am I the writer, to speak adequately concerning his theological essays. Archdeacon Hare considers that “ the main work of his life was to spiritualize not. our philosophy, but our theology, to raise them both above the empiricism into which they had long been dwindling, and to set them free from the technical trammels of logical precision.” His influence upon subsequent thought in this department is confessedly great. But what we chiefly care for at present is to notice what colossal proportions that interest in his own mind, found to be important as it related to his poetry, assumed after his poetry declined from its first glory. From boyhood he had the taste for metaphysics, but in the Dejection he states distinctly that sorrow is fettering his “ shaping spirit of imagination,” and driving him to steal from his “ own nature all the natural man,” by abstruse research, — an often-quoted passage. However it may be applied in quotation, it shows very clearly grief on Coleridge’s part at the direction his mind was taking. When at last, in 1807, he returned from Malta completely the slave of opium, there rose up in a dark cloud, as if about to extinguish his poetic genius, an overshadowing sense of guilt, accompanied by wordy speculations on salvation and voluminous arguments on the Trinity. Orthodox faith grew upon him in proportion as he sank into dismal and hopeless vice. Instead of turning this religious fervor to his own improvement, he employed it in trying to convince others, in smoothing the way for after-comers, discussing church and state, and providing a manual for Christian statesmen. His family he left fatherless and dependent on charity, himself remaining a beggar, consumed with remorse and profuse with abject and pitiable self-condemnation, weakly continuing in sensuality, and all the while recording the result of this wofully wrecked career on his own thought. This is the dreary situation we are compelled to face in looking at Coleridge as man and poet. What he himself thought of it is written in one of his marginal notes in the Literary Remains, where, after describing how one should become “a rightful poet, that is, a great man,” he adds this comment on his own note : “ A map of the road to Paradise, drawn in purgatory, on the confines of Hell, by S. T. C., July 30, 1819.”

There is another side to this change, apparently of ruin, which overcame his career. Without it, the world would undoubtedly have been deprived of the service which he clearly rendered to religious thought in importing the large ratiocination of Kant into England, and giving to the German philosopher’s Pure Reason that transcendent meaning which was indigenous to his own aspiring mind. Without it, too, we should have missed the poems of later manhood, which form so remarkable a record of a great spirit wronged by the conditions of its mundane existence, and disconsolately grieving. His heart broke in music. Throughout the poems of this time, we hear the echo of the ebb of all his hopes, receding with a hollow-sweet, monotonous refrain. By the absorbing beauty of this sadness, and the intense interest attaching to the evolution of his thoughts on religion, his concentration upon his own mind is justified. His was a nature so rare that the world is incalculably privileged in being allowed to watch and follow its vicissitudes ; and had it not been lost for thirty years in a maze of sin and disappointment we should not, perhaps, have known its full range of power, its profoundest depth of feeling.

If we look for the immediate causes of Coleridge’s disappointment and failure, we shall be puzzled to find adequate ones. He married, indeed, on nothing, and for several years was sore pressed to find the means of livelihood. But no man ever had more opportunities, or friends more generous. His lectures were profitable, from the beginning. In the complacent but appreciative Cottle he had a genuine friend and liberal publisher, at a time when to publish for him or for Wordsworth and Southey was almost Quixotic. Numerous schemes for schools or pupils were broached, and to all seeming could have been carried out with a little energy. The profession of Unitarian preacher was open to Coleridge, and would have supported life : but from this he was rescued by the liberality of the Wedgwoods, who settled upon him an annuity four times as large as the yearly income derived by Wordsworth from the bequest of Raisley Calvert, which was long that poet’s chief dependence. None of these things availed to ward off distress. In 1796, before the settlement of the annuity, he wrote to Cottle : “ So I am forced to write for bread! — write the flights of poetic enthusiasm, when every minute I am hearing a groan from my wife. Groans and complaints and sickness ! The present hour I am in a quick-set hedge of embarrassment, and whichever way I turn a thorn runs into me! The future is cloud and thick darkness ! Poverty, perhaps, and the thin faces of them that want bread looking up to me! Nor is this all. My happiest moments for composition are broken in upon by the reflection that I must make haste.” Every imaginative person, and in especial every imaginative writer who has felt the pressure of narrow means, will answer with sorrowful yearning that piteous cry, even as it stands now upon the printed page, when the poet’s frame is dust. Yet, if the truth must be told, we shall put instead of the words “ write for bread ” “project and dream for bread.” That was what Coleridge was then chiefly doing. A year before, he was preparing his “ great work of Imitations,” of which nothing further was ever heard. His poems, for which he drew payment in advance, fell slowly from his pen. He once read to Cottle a list of eighteen works which he intended to write, no one of which ever reached completion ; and at other times he had in hand a History of German Belles-Lettres, a Life of Lessing, two volumes on Hall, Milton, and Taylor, and on Johnson and Gibbon, with other books, — the whole list of the unaccomplished footing up forty-four elaborate projects, for some of which he partly collected the material. As Cottle observes, he would frequently talk an entire octavo of original matter in a single evening; but that was not to the purpose. Yet in his weekly, The Watchman, undertaken in 1798, in his efforts to write for the daily press, afterward, in London, and in The Friend, issued when he was staying with Wordsworth at Grasmere, in 1808-9, he displayed a practical desire for bread getting work, and more or less industrious application. What, then, was the trouble ? I think Coleridge had a natural capacity for luxuriousness, as there are people who have a native inaptitude for it, and cannot possibly enjoy it, even under the most favoring circumstances. This led to negligence, procrastination, and unthrift. Perhaps, too, it was the rightful business of his genius to dream and project, instead of executing, at the early age when he began wedded life ; and instinctive obedience to genius was stronger than the earnest desire and sharp necessity of supporting his family. Suppose for a moment that he had succeeded as the editor of a weekly review, or as a writer for London dailies: what unspeakable loss would have been ours! If the relief given by the Wedgwoods had come earlier, Coleridge’s history might have been different. Two years before that, referring to the various frustrated plans for gaining a support, he had said, “ I am not the man I have been, and I think I never shall [be]. A sort of calm hopelessness diffuses itself over my heart.” And by the time the annuity was offered poverty and anxiety may have set their stamp too deeply on his impressible and sensitive character to be effaced. That “ calm hopelessness ” had become a habit. But do we, in line, wish that it had been otherwise? I am not of those who waste regrets upon the epic on the siege of Jerusalem which he did not write ; we are perhaps as well off, too, without his observations on the German Boors. A great work, indeed, he might have done in his proposed study of masters of English prose and poetry, as the fragments reported from his lectures and notes attest. But Coleridge the prosperous author, producing literature by the pound, converting his conversation on the Corn Laws and all other conceivable subjects into volumes, so many per annum, — what a commonplace figure to replace that of the stricken bard, the seer, the thinker, the marvelous conversation-orator, whom we now have!

No ; that mournfulness that we have observed in him was a prophetic note. In the Allegoric Vision he tells of a peculiar melancholy that was wont to possess him. in spring and in autumn: in spring, “ the melancholy of hope ; in autumn, the melancholy of resignation.” That spring sadness of hope prefigured the autumnal sadness of his second half of life, which gave his reflective poems their pathos and their value as direct comments on life, and has invested his prose with a tragic and tender interest denied to that of writers whose personality is more sober and methodical. But at a fearful cost to his family, to his friends, and his own manhood did he pursue this destiny to the end. His very virtues assisted to bring on his failure more surely; his thirst for knowledge, his desire for accuracy, and his comprehensive circuit of thought, all led him to continual and fatal delays in preparing himself to write prose works. Besides, his absorbed attention to public affairs interfered with the creative mood. To Mr. Thomas Wedgwood, in 1800, he wrote that “ the present state of human affairs ” pressed on him for days together, so as to deprive him of all his cheerfulness ; but although he admitted this to be a morbid condition, he added, “Life were so flat a thing without enthusiasm that if for a moment it leaves me I have a sort of stomach sensation attached to all my thoughts, like those which succeed to the pleasurable operations of a dose of opium.” To the craving for excessive stimulation even at the expense of depressing reaction, here confessed, his misfortunes must in great measure be attributed. It may have had something to do with the utter indifference which he so long displayed towards his family. De Quincey, in his very questionable gossip about the man whom he had at one time aided with a considerable sum of money, intimates that with all Mrs. Coleridge’s merits there was incompatibility between herself and her husband. Whoever utters the name of wife mentions the key to mysteries of mutual influence for good or ill which can never be wholly disclosed in this world, — least of all by confident tattlers. It is of little use, therefore, to dwell upon such speculations. We may, charitably to both, guess that compatibility with so fitful and peculiar a man as Coleridge might be difficult for any woman. But, at all events, he passed completely through the phase of happy love which was recorded in sundry poems; and in The Blossoming of the Date-Tree, long after he had left his wife, he sighs, —

“Why was I made for Love, and Love denied to me ?”

Yet memory and remorse associated with her being must have lent their weight to his long depression in decline. These wonderful and poignant lines from the second part of the Christabel, produced before the separation that was to prove final, had almost a prophetic bearing upon it: —

“ They parted, —ne'er to meet again!
But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining,
They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder.
A dreary sea now flows between;
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.”

Finally, hope left him, “like a loose blossom on a gusty night.” There has been much debate whether his ill health came from the use of opium, or was due to an exposure in childhood which settled rheumatism in his constitution. He impressed impartial observers as a strong man, though his editor and his daughter have maintained that he was so only in appearance. We have noticed how he first had recourse to opium to relieve terrible physical pain ; but, even allowing the excuses which his relatives have made, it cannot be denied that he abused the drug, and his own words are not wanting to show that bodily infirmity was at least greatly aggravated thereby. The desire for stimulation led to this abuse. Men of such temperament as his, and even those much more robust than he, when they have come to failure or wandered into wrong-doing, find a wild but not inexplicable satisfaction in loading themselves with fresh burdens of error, as if to crush the first by a new incubus. Sensuality is to such men a counter-irritant, which, though it be worse than the disease, still fascinates them.

So the magnificently endowed creature, who, amid his constitutional melancholy, had been noisy and “ gamesome as a boy ” in his best days that Wordsworth knew, confronted Carlyle, who saw him in his late retirement at Highgate, with deep eyes “ as full of sorrow as of inspiration ; confused pain looked mildly from them as in a kind of mild astonishment.” The ultra republican of forty years before had become a tory, with profuse, almost cowardly apology for so splendid a piece of poetic sarcasm as the Fire, Famine, and Slaughter. There is a wretched abjectness in his whole attitude at this time. Carlyle, with a rough and bitter humor pervading all that he says of him, characterizes his whole air as flabby and irresolute, and scoffs at his unintelligible talk, given with eager and musical energy. Stirling made no such complaint; and Henry Nelson Coleridge declares that an entire day spent with the poet “ was a Sabbath past expression deep and tranquil and serene.” Of his conversation he adds that, though the subtlest listener might not understand it as he would a newspaper, there would steal upon him an attempering influence which worked until " his total being vibrated with one pulse alone, and thought became merged in contemplation.” Such, too, is the spell of his higher poetry, and if it departed from his song it still dwelt upon his lips.

The distinction has been made that Wordsworth was a philosophic poet and Coleridge a poetical philosopher. But this is useful only to be rejected, as defining an utter misapprehension of the true nature of the Sibylline poet’s genius. Whether his theosophical writings answer to the full value given them by theologians, or must be rated by Carlyle’s estimate as “ logical fata morganas,” they have been of value to others, and were of great value to Coleridge, as giving him the one solution attainable for all his misery.

“ In Christ I live! in Christ I draw the breath
Of the true life! Let, then, earth, sea, and sky
Make war against me! On my front I show
Their mighty master’s seal. In vain they try
To end my life, that can but end its woe.
Is that a death-bed where a Christian lies?
Yes ! but not his, — 't is Death itself there dies.”

The faith that could rouse the poet to this sublime utterance was of vast importance to him as a culmination of his mental history; and the history of his own mind and soul was what interested him most. The props upon which he built it and the humiliating circumstances of his decline are secondary. Coleridge was above all a poet, — a poet of rare imagination and of musical power indescribable, whose chants far transcend the song of Wordsworth in spontaneousness and artistic ideality. He had no novel purpose, no theory to enforce, no special interpretation of nature, which would suffice to form a school or to influence modern poetry so directly as Wordsworth has done ; but his melodious and imaginative inspiration has passed into the air that all poets breathe, and will long affect them to their advantage.

He was not a Titan, like Byron. He was not well balanced, like Wordsworth, nor did he attain to the more exalted spirituality of a calm like Emerson’s. But nevertheless grandeur and beauty are in him. I have a vision of a man looking up in anguish at the sky, and beating his breast; and at every stroke upon his breast a sweep of music sad and delicious issues forth. Such is Coleridge. Beautiful are the formed, secure, and reverend lives of self - respecting men. But beautiful also, and precious, is the life that like a breaking vase spills its elixir in such rills as these of Coleridge, with such wild perfume !

George Parsons Lathrop.

  1. The Poetical Works of Coleridge and Keats, with a Memoir of each. Four vols. in two. New York: Hurd and Houghton. Boston: H. O. Houghton & Co. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1878.
  2. The Greek word for seer or prophet (μαντίς) and that meaning; to rage (μαίνoμαι) both of which come from a root indicating search or desire, and by reduplication signifying the greatest intensity of onward longing, express this self-surrendering faculty best.
  3. Here, by the way, is the earliest instance of Coleridge’s appropriation of another man’s words. This line is owed to a verse in Southey’s Retrospect (1794). Coleridge first met Southey at Oxford, in April, 1794. The question of Coleridge’s plagiarisms, however, has been made too much of. The borrowing of a line from a friend was nothing extraordinary, considering the freedom with which lines were then exchanged, or supplied on a pinch by one poet to another, as a sort of credit currency in the hands of him who could make the best use of it. It was a more serious matter, incorporating seven lines from a sonnet by Favell with his Monody on Chatterton. and not acknowledging them, when he gave credit for others from the same source. He was accused in 1796 of plagiarizing from Rogers, and defended himself by a counter-charge, afterward withdrawn. Then came, years later, De Quincey’s complaints of purloinings from Schelling. A review of the evidence shows that Coleridge’s want of order doubtless led to the omission of credit in this case; and his memory played him extraordinary pranks, as when he published without signature among his own poems Lamb’s sonnet to Mrs. Siddons, which had appeared in a previous edition with Lamb’s initials, Frederika Bremer’s poem on Mont Blanc is not mentioned, though it doubtless suggested the Hymn in the Vale of Chamouni. Without that, the hymn might not have been written ; being written it utterly extinguishes the suggestive German. Coleridge could have afforded here to adopt the bold policy of his title to the poem on a Cataract, “ improved from Stolberg,”
  4. See Atlantic Monthly for November, 1877. (Vol. xl. No. 241.)
  5. See Riverside edition, vol. i. p. 266. This piece appeared first in 1802, in a daily paper, but was probably written in 1798 or 1799. The author apparently forgot its existence, not having included it in his subsequent collection; and, curiously enough, wrote another Day-Dream in 1814 (see vol. ii. p. 66), akin to the first in theme, quite like it in mood, and cast in almost the same stanza, but much inferior in musicalness and warmth. The contrast is instructive.