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SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE.
[Samuel TAYLOR COLERIDGE was born at Ottery Saint Mary in the year 1772, was educated at Christ's Hospital and Jesus College, Cambridge, and died in 1834, at Highgate, in the house of Mr. Gillman, under whose friendly care he had passed the last eighteen years of his life, during which years he wrote but little. His first volume of poems was published at Bristol in 1796, and in 1798, Wordsworth's famous volume of Lyrical Ballads, to which Coleridge contributed The Ancient Mariner, together with some other pieces. Christabel, after lying long in manuscript, was printed in 1816, three editions of it appearing in one year; and in the next year Coleridge published a collection of his chief poems, under the title of Sibylline Leaves, “in allusion,' as he says, 'to the fragmentary and wildlyscattered state in which they had been long suffered to remain.' A desultory writer both in prose and verse, he published the first really collective edition of his Poetical and Dramatic Works in the year 1828, in three volumes arranged by himself; a third and more complete issue of which, arranged by another hand, appeared in 1834, the year of his death. The latest reprint", with notes and an excellent memoir, and some poems not included in any earlier collection, is founded on that final edition of 1834.]
Coleridge's prose writings on philosophy, politics, religion and criticism, were but one element in a whole life-time of endeavours to present the then recent metaphysics of Germany to English readers, as a legitimate expansion of the older, classical and native, masters of what has been variously called the à priori, or absolute, or spiritual, or Platonic view of things. To introduce that spiritual philosophy, as represented by the more transcendental parts of Kant, and by Schelling, into all subjects, as a system of reason in them, one and ever identical with itself, however various the matter through which it was diffused, became with him the motive of an unflagging enthusiasm, which seems to have been the one thread of continuity in a life otherwise
* London: Basil Montagu Pickering, 1877.
singularly wanting in unity of purpose, and in which he was certainly far from uniformly at his best. Fragmentary and obscure, but often eloquent, and always at once earnest and ingenious, those writings, supplementing his remarkable gift of conversation, were directly and indirectly influential, even on some the furthest removed from Coleridge's own masters ; on John Stuart Mill, for instance, and some of the earlier writers of the high-church school. Like his verse, they display him also in two other characters—as a student of words, and as a psychologist, that is, as a more minute observer than other men of the phenomena of mind. To note the recondite associations of words, old or new; to expound the logic, the reasonable soul, of their various uses; to recover the interest of older writers who had had a phraseology of their own—this was a vein of enquiry allied to his undoubted gift of tracking out and analysing curious modes of thought. A quaint fragment on Human Life might serve to illustrate his study of the earlier English philosophical poetry. The latter gift, that power of the 'subtle-souled psychologist,' as Shelley calls him, seems to have been connected with a tendency to disease in the physical temperament, to something of a morbid want of balance in the parts where the physical and intellectual elements mix most intimately together, with a kind of languid visionariness, deep-seated in the very constitution of the “nar. cotist' who had quite a gift for 'plucking the poisons of self-harm,' and which the actual habit of taking opium, accidentally acquired, did but reinforce. This morbid languor of nature, connected both with his fitfulness of purpose and his rich delicate dreaminess, qualifies Coleridge's poetic composition even more than his prose ; his verse, with the exception of his avowedly political poems, being, unlike that of the 'Lake School,' to which in some respects he belongs, singularly unaffected by any moral, or professional, or personal effort and ambition,—written,' as he says, "after the more violent emotions of sorrow, to give him pleasure, when perhaps nothing else could;' but coming thus, indeed, very close to his own most intimately personal characteristics, and having a certain languidly soothing grace or cadence, for its most fixed quality, from first to last. After some Platonic soliloquy on a flower opening on a fine day in February, he goes on
And the warm wooings of this sunny day
Played deftly on a soft-toned instrument.' The expression of two opposed yet allied elements of sensibility in these lines is very true to Coleridge ;-the grievous agitation, the grievous listlessness, almost never entirely relieved, with a certain physical voluptuousness. He has spoken several times of the scent of the bean-field in the air : the tropical notes in a chilly climate-his is a nature which will make the most of these, which finds a sort of caress in these things. Kubla Khan, a fragment of a poem actually composed in some certainly not quite healthy sleep, is perhaps chiefly interesting as showing, by the mode of its composition, how physical, how much a matter of a diseased and valetudinarian temperament in its moments of relief, Coleridge's happiest gift really was; and, side by side with Kubla Khan, should be read, as Coleridge placed it, the Pains of Sleep, to illustrate that retarding physical burden in his temperament, that 'unimpassioned grief, the source of which was so near the source of those pleasures. Connected also with this, and again in contrast with Wordsworth, is the limited quantity of his poetical performance, which he himself regrets so eloquently in the lines addressed to Wordsworth after his recitation of The Prelude. It is like some exotic plant just managing to blossom a little in the somewhat un-English air of Coleridge's own birth-place, but never quite well there.
The period of Coleridge's residence at Nether Stowey, 1797– 1798, was his annus mirabilis. Nearly all the chief works by which his poetic fame will live were then composed or planned. What shapes itself for criticism as the main phenomenon of Coleridge's poetic life, is not, as with most poets, the gradual development of a poetic gift, determined, enriched, retarded, by the circumstances of the poet's life, but the sudden blossoming, through one short season, of such a gift already perfect in its kind, which thereafter deteriorates as suddenly, with something like premature old age. Connecting this phenomenon with the leading motive of his prose writings, we might note it as the deterioration of a productive or creative power into one merely metaphysical or discursive. In the unambitious conception of his function as a poet, and in the limited quantity of his poetical performance, as
I have said, he was a contrast to his friend Wordsworth. That friendship with Wordsworth, the chief 'developing' circumstance of his poetic life, comprehended a very close intellectual sympathy ; and in this association chiefly, lies whatever truth there may be in the popular classification of Coleridge as a member of what is called the Lake School.' Coleridge's philosophical speculations do really turn on the ideas which underlay Wordsworth's poetical practice. His prose works are one long explanation of all that is involved in that famous distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination. Of what is understood by both as the imaginative quality in the use of mere poetic figures, we may take some words of Shakespeare as an example :
• My cousin Suffolk,
The complete infusion here, of the figure into the thought, so vividly realised that though the birds are not actually mentioned yet the sense of their flight, conveyed to us by the single word ‘abreast,' comes to be more than half of the thought itself ;this, as the expression of exalted feeling, is an instance of what Coleridge meant by Imagination. And this sort of identification of the poet's thought, of himself, with the image or figure which serves him, is the secret, sometimes, of a singularly entire realisation of that image, which makes this figure of Coleridge's, for instance, 'imaginative':
• Amid the howl of more than wintry storms,
There are many such figures both in Coleridge's prose and verse. He has too his passages of that sort of impassioned contemplation on the permanent and elementary conditions of nature and humanity, which Wordsworth held to be the essence of the poetic life, and its object to awaken in other men—those ‘moments, as Coleridge says, addressing him,
The whole of the poem from which those lines are taken, 'composed on the night after Wordsworth’s recitation of a poem on the growth of an individual mind,' is, in its strain of impassioned contemplation, and in the combined justness and elevation of its philosophical expression
high and passionate thoughts To their own music chanted ;'entirely sympathetic with The Prelude which it celebrates, and of which the subject is, in effect, the generation of the spirit of the ‘Lake poetry.' The Lines to Joseph Cottle have the same philosophically imaginative character; the Ode to Dejection being Coleridge's most sustained effort of this sort.
It is in a highly sensitive apprehension of the aspects of external nature that Coleridge identifies himself most closely with one of the main tendencies of the ‘Lake School ;' a tendency instinctive, and no mere matter of theory, in him as in Wordsworth. That record of the
Which lingers in the west,' and again, of
the western sky And its peculiar tint of yellow green,' which Byron found ludicrously untrue, but which surely needs no defence, is a characteristic example of a singular watchfulness for the minute fact and expression of natural scenery, pervading all he writes—a closeness to the exact physiognomy of nature, having something to do with that idealistic philosophy, which sees in the external world no mere concurrence of mechanical agencies, but an animated body, informed and made expressive, like the body of man, by an indwelling intelligence. It was a tendency, doubtless, in the air, for Shelley too is affected by it, and Turner, with the school of landscape which followed him. ' I had found,' Coleridge tells us,
• That outward forms, the loftiest, still receive
History and prophecy ...' and this induces in him no indifference to actual colour and form and process, but such minute realism as this