The Coleorton Papers
COLEORTON was the country-seat of Sir George Beaumont, the artist, whose principal claim to remembrance is the share he had in establishing the National Gallery, of which he is fairly to be regarded as the liberal and patriotic founder. He is known in literature as the friend of W ordsworth, and it is this intimacy which makes the Coleorton Papers,1 just edited by the most competent of Wordsworthians, Professor Knight, an interesting contribution to literary history. Sir George, who was a painter of landscape, discovered the Lake Country at an early period, and is reported by Southey to have spent at Keswick part of the summer in which he was married. He was fifty years old when he met Coleridge at Greta Hall, in 1803, and shortly afterwards he opened correspondence with Wordsworth by presenting him with a small estate near Coleridge’s abode. The friendship thus begun between Wordsworth and his patron proved permanent. To it we owe the letters which principally compose these two volumes, and afford us glimpses of the ordinary course of human events with the poet in his retirement. The correspondence is simple and homely, on the level of the daily life of the participants ; it wanders occasionally into subjects of taste, but is on the whole closely bound down to the topic which happened to be uppermost in mind and nearest to life. There are persons who would call this sort of talk about friends and visits, houses and lands, and the trivialities of domestic economy “ chatter about Wordsworth ; ” books, principles, intellectual matters in general, have no more share here than in life itself, — they form a portion only of the being of men with bodies and affairs. But it is not unpleasant for us to look in so faithful a mirror of the days at Grasmere, to see genius off of its pedestal and alive in its own home ; to relax the intellectual faculties, if need be, and be content to listen to the converse of two men of cultivation about common things that interested them, without insisting that they should teach us very much.
Coleridge’s letters form a kind of prelude to those of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy ; but they are very different in style, in the temperament they show, and in their subject. The latter is usually the ego; and in reading the apologies of the writer for treating of this ever-present theme, and his observations on his own lack of vanity and the danger he is in of undervaluing his powers and works, one can scarcely fail to be struck by the identity in many respects of the egotism of the overweening and of the self-depreciating kinds. The aspects are different, but the weakness has the same root. In Coleridge it was perhaps, no more than a question of the state of his stomach whether his assiduous interest in himself should result in intellectual pride or in self-abasement; but without giving too severe a touch, it is clear enough that his eye, when fixed on himself, was on the wrong object, and it is little palliation of the moral error to hear him exclaim that the sight he beheld there did not make him vain. Humility and low spirits are quite different things; if Coleridge considered that his egotism was less because he fancied that he sometimes thought very little of himself, the reader must regard it as a delusion. The earlier letters are a chapter of invalidism ; they might have been written to his physician ; there is no pleasure to be had in them any more than in other diagnoses, though the illustration they afford of Coleridge’s temperament is valuable.
One long epistle, however, in which he devotes himself to an analysis of his mental condition at tlie time when he was what is now known as a Social Democrat, is of passing interest, as it shows by an eminent example in what ways the minds of young men of enthusiasm, who have caught the contagion of new ideas, commonly act, and how their tongues are kept going. Coleridge and Southey were rampant young radicals for about ten months, and might many times have been justly thrown into jail for the use of unlawful language and seditiously fomenting the passions of the people. Coleridge ascribes the beginning of his rumblings from the true path of respectable politics partly to his intellectual isolation among his relatives and virtuous acquaintances generally, who thought that his “ opinions were the drivel of a babe, but the guilt attached to them, — this was the gray hair and rigid muscle of inveterate depravity ; ” and partly, he declares, it was due to the thirst for kindness planted in himself, in that “ me, who,”he says, “from my childhood have had no avarice, no ambition, whose very vanity in my vainest moments was nine tenths of it the desire and delight and necessity of loving and of being beloved,” — needs which he found satisfied in the welcome and company of “the Democrats.” So he fell among evil companions. On becoming an agitator upon the platform he succumbed to the temptations of the fluent speaker, gifted “ with an ebullient fancy, a flowing utterance, a light and dancing heart, and a disposition to catch time by the very rapidity of my own motion, and to speak vehemently from mere verbal associations; choosing sentences and sentiments for the very reason which would have made me recoil with a dying away of the heart and unutterable horror from the actions expressed in such sentiments and sentences, namely, because they were wild and original, and vehement and fantastic.” Here is a choice specimen of his eloquence, on the occasion of a supper by Lord Somebody, to commemorate an Austrian victory : “ This is a true Lord’s Supper in the communion of darkness ! This is a Eucharist of Hell ! a sacrament of misery ! over each morsel and each drop of which the spirit of some murdered innocent cries aloud to God, This is my body! and this is my blood ! ” There was one sin against society, however, which he declined to commit, and he takes great credit to himself for his obstinate refusal. He joined no party, club, or any of the radical societies, which he characterizes as “ ascarides in the bowels of the state, subsisting on the weakness and diseasedness, and having for their final object the death of that state, whose life had been their birth and growth, and continued to be their sole nourishment.” He remained outside of these entangling alliances, a free-lance speechifier, in the condition of mind of the willing martyr: “ The very clank of the chains that were to be put about my limbs would not at that time have deterred me from a strong phrase or striking metaphor, although I had had no other inducement to the use of the same except the wantonness of luxuriant imagination, and my aversion to abstain from anything simply because it was dangerous.” Such was Coleridge at twenty-four years, — the age at which Emmett was executed; whose death called out this long letter of reminiscences concerning his own career as an agitator, and of reflections upon the impulses and justification of revolutionary orators, their temptations, errors, and illusions. He understood the fate of Emmett with greater clearness because of this little episode in his own life, and it is noticeable that he has the grace not to think that the young patriot’s career bore too much resemblance to his own; but this confession of his foolishness in general, spread out somewhat magniloquently before the eyes of his aristocratic correspondent, is a lesson in human nature well worth a moment’s attention from conservative and orderly people. Coleridge does not enter the volumes again, until after his return from Malta, and then only as an occasional correspondent; in his later letters, when he touches on an intellectual subject, the sentences read like notes for some one of his many “ projected works,” and there is nothing of consequence in them not elsewhere expressed in his writings.
Wordsworth was a sympathizer with revolution, too, but the feeling had died out of him as out of Southey and Coleridge. Here he appears only as a genuine, unaffected friend, living in the retirement of the country, and enjoying his tastes by communication with one who shared them. His life did not mingle with Sir George’s to any great degree ; they lived apart, and Sir George was a man of the world, with many connections with the world’s life, and varied interests. The principal monument of their friendship will always be the characteristic and great poem suggested by the picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, which Sir George painted ; the art of the latter is also associated with Wordsworth’s works by some illustration of Peter Bell and other poems, known to collectors of editions : the Inscriptions, too, written for the grounds at Coleorton, and ranking high in that kind of verse, are a notable relic of their common life. Coleorton, in fact, is said to bear, at the present time, more traces of Wordsworth’s actual presence than the region about his own home. He occupied the farmhouse there for a year, and found recreation in the intervals of composition by attending to the layingout of the winter garden on the estate. It is not unlikely that Sir George’s influence was felt by the poet in the growth of his taste for landscape. The former belonged to that school which selects and rearranges the natural features of a scene. As Wordsworth was not a lover of wild nature in the same degree as Byron or Shelley, and as he adopted the principle that a landscape, to have the highest interest, must be humanized, he developed a strong liking for the practical art of landscape-gardening. Not only in his own work at Coleorton, but also in his remarks upon the estates which he saw from time to time upon his journeys, he shows this trait, and he was evidently much pleased with the opportunity Sir George gave him of experimenting according to his own ideas. The topic is a very prominent one in the letters that passed between them.
Of matters connected with his own poetical work, and especially of criticism upon it, of which we would gladly have more, there is less than one would naturally expect, and what there is has seen the light before in the poet’s biography. He was laboring at this time upon his long poems. It appears that he wrote at the rate of about two hundred lines a week, and afterwards corrected more slowly and with great difficulty. He was not altogether oblivious to the faults of these narratives, and especially to their tedious length. He hoped to succeed in so modest an effort as describing the development of his own mind ; nevertheless, he acknowledges it “ might certainly have been done in narrower compass by a man of more address; but I have done my best.
If, when the work shall be finished, it appears to the judicious to have redundancies, they shall be lopped off, if possible ; but this is very difficult to do, when a man has written with thought; and this defect, whenever I have suspected it or found it to exist in any writings of mine, I have always found incurable. The fault lies too deep, and is in the first conception.” This is plainly sincere, and is a true statement of the case. On the other hand, he is entirely sure of his genius and of its future, though his poems meet with little sale. He ascribes the neglect to an incapacity on the part of men engaged in the trivialities of business and society to understand poetry. He commiserates them on their misfortune, because, he says, “ to be incapable of a feeling of poetry, in my sense of the word, is to be without love of human nature and reverence for God ; ” but the dispersion of the minds of the worldlings among things of transitory interest does not disturb his faith in the value of his art, and in the final recognition of the work he has done in it. This is his well-known attitude ; but when it is taken so simply and as a matter of course, in correspondence with a confidential friend, it has a peculiarly manly quality.
The glimpses one gets of Wordsworth’s poetic life, however, are very few. The subject of the story is rather the ordinary human concerns in which two families, attached to each other, take interest, whether there is a poet in one of them or not; and for this reason the letters of his sister Dorothy are a valuable supplement to those of Wordsworth. She was a woman of character, and full of femininity. When taken by itself in a special biography, her life loses its most pleasing aspects, because she must remain a subordinate figure, for one to understand the womanly help she gave. As the attendant of her brother, his companion in his walks and thoughts, she is seen from the right point of view; by herself, she has the incompleteness of one figure of a group of which the rest are lost. In this correspondence she occupies just the place which belonged to her in life, and by her letters to Lady Beaumont she throws those minor sidelights on the domestic ways of the family at Grasmere which are needed to bring out with truth the interior of the home. After reading them, one understands better how Wordsworth lived. This is the use, and tous the charm, of the collection ; it admits us to the usual tastes and common affairs of a man of genius, and makes us for the time beinghousemates, where there is only cheerfulness and serenity. The distinctly intellectual element is not large in this home of genius, outside of the study; but the cultivated and kindly element is pervasive, — hard, possibly, to put the finger on, and say it is here and here, but felt in different degrees continuously. We learn better from such books than from more pretentious ones what constitutes amity of feeling; there is no precept, but much delightful practice ; and genius does not lose, but gains, by the knowledge that its ways are as our ways.
At the close, one is much struck by the atmosphere of old age that comes upon the pages. The children are grown up and seeking their fortune ; Edith Southey is married, and a new Sir George and Lady Beaumont are at the hall; the tone of all is one of calm, consolation, and hopefulness,—the Wordsworthian spirit. Wordsworth’s last words are worth quoting as a farewell; they illustrate how the love of nature and enjoyment of it, unlike most of youthful emotions, gain an increasing glow with years, and they express his faith and life in the most elementary terms : “ I never had a higher relish for the beauties of nature than during this spring, nor enjoyed myself more. What manifold reason, my dear George, have you and I had to be thankful to Providence ! Theologians may puzzle their heads about dogmas as they will; the religion of gratitude cannot mislead us. Of that we are sure, and gratitude is the handmaid to hope, and hope the harbinger of faith. I look abroad upon nature, I think of the best part of our species, I lean upon my friends, and I meditate upon the Scriptures, especially the Gospel of St. John ; and my creed rises up of itself with the ease of an exhalation, yet a fabric of adamant. God bless you, my ever dear friend.” The Christian resignation of Southey and the geniality of Sir Walter Scott, whose letters are not remarkable, have also this touch of the years. So close, in pleasant and quiet tones of lives happily and purely lived, these memorials of the friendship of a few eminent men, which make Coleorton a remembered name.
- Memorials of Coleorton. Being Letters from Coleridge, Wordsworth and his Sister, Southey and Sir Walter Scott, to Sir George and Lady Beaumont, of Coleorton, Leicestershire, 1803 to 1834. Edited, with introduction and notes, by WILLIAM KNIGHT, University of St. Andrews. Two volumes. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.↩