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NATURALISM AND SUPERNATURALISM IN POETRY
THE restless passion for a perfection to be consummated here and now, which brought about the political and social changes of the Revolution, brought about also the movement named 'transcendental.' A desire for the absolute in action led in the latter years of the eighteenth century to the materialistic revolution, whose spiritual counterpart, a corresponding desire for the absolute in thought, led to the new and enlarged conceptions which drew Nature and man closer to their infinite source. The eighteenth century, an intellectual but unimaginative period in the history of civilisation, made relative truth its object, and regarded 'probability,' in Bishop Butler's phrase, 'as the very guide of life.' If the materialistic revolution be read aright, it will be read as an effort to translate the newly liberated ideals of the spirit of man into instant practice. This was the outcome of the new spirit in the sphere of political philosophy. Transcendental thought in the sphere of metaphysical philosophy aimed at an overthrow of the mechanical procedure of the empirical thinkers, and the substitution of the science of real knowledge, not derived mediately through the senses but immediately from the
central fountain of being. Relative truth, tolerable, social and political institutions were no longer satisfying, and were henceforth discredited. For the future there was to be no rest for the soul; for it could never again make its home amid relative truths and tolerable social and political institutions. Looking back towards the opening of the century, Wordsworth and Coleridge seem to stand over against each other, the two pillars of Hercules at the entrance to the boundless ocean of the new world, over which the hunger of the heart for a stainless ideal drives the child of our unquiet time on a quest which he cannot relinquish, though he knows it will be vain.
Wordsworth's friendship with Coleridge, the strong bond between them in their early days of work, rendered memorable by the joint authorship of the 'Lyrical Ballads,' has made their name and fame inseparable. And yet the extreme diversity in character and temperament of these two men is at once apparent. They visited Germany together in early life, and the influences of that visit are significant of the type of mind of each. Wordsworth made little way in the acquisition of the language, remained undisturbed by the influx of any fresh stream of ideas, and continued quietly to give himself almost wholly to the composition of his own poems. Not even in later life did he express any reverence for Goethe; and the philosophers failed to attract him. Coleridge plunged immediately into the metaphysical studies with which he occupied so large a portion of his life, and did so much to forward in England. The truth is, Wordsworth's faiths were never arrived at by logical process. They were the result of meditative contemplation which brooded on and on, until thought died away into feeling, and the contemplation ceased to be in
any degree intellectual, and became purely impassioned It was by an undivided single process that his distinctive creed was developed. No mind reaches by logic a conclusion such as this :
' And 'tis my faith that every flower
Coleridge's mind, on the other hand, was characterised by a ratiocinative meditativeness, he was fully conscious of the steps of demonstration by which his faiths were established. His belief was dependent upon intellectual assent. The abiding peace of heart that distinguished Wordsworth's whole life sprang from that same quiet acquisition of a faith not learnt in the schools, but which unfolded and expanded out of the the bosom of solitary meditation. Coleridge's disquiet was the no less natural outcome of a creed born amid contention, and at any moment liable to attack or overthrow from suspected or unsuspected quarters. Poetry, which was to him, as he has himself told us, 'its own exceeding great reward,' was far from being, as Wordsworth's poetry was, the direct and natural expression of his complete character and life. Coleridge's was a far more complex character and less uniform life, and poetry was Coleridge's refuge, the land of dreams into which he could. make his escape, the writing of which could 'give him pleasure,' as he said, 'when nothing else could.'
While, then, we may read Wordsworth with perfect confidence that we are in communion with the poet's very self, we know that only a part of Coleridge, only the dreamer of strange dreams, who has escaped from the philosopher close clasped in the metaphysical coil, only a part of the whole man is with us. This is the clue to the
fragmentary and sensuous character of his best poems. They do not embody his philosophy of life, only the phantasies of his visionary hour. Yet these pleasure excursions into the rich demesne of the pure imagination will preserve the name of Coleridge when the note-books which represent the intellectual wealth of his mind, and the influences that radiated from it, are only known to the student. In the storm and stress of the conflicts of time, names are forgotten that once were in all men's mouths: others never spoken, save by their friends, may emerge into sudden fame perhaps a hundred years after the gravestones recorded them apparently for the last time. Reputation is a strange thing, and it would be unwise to count on posthumous honours. Milton, the poet, was little known in his own day. Milton, the political controversialist, was so famous that he came near to suffering severely for his part in the support of Cromwellianism. The years have changed all that. Coleridge, 'the Seer of Highgate,' 'the rapt one of the god-like forehead,' who seemed in his own day the speaker of the oracular words concerning human life and the mysteries surrounding it, this Coleridge has passed away, and the Coleridge of the 'Ancient Mariner' and 'Christabel,' the poet alone remains. With the philosophical Coleridge we have here no concern, especially since his philosophy and his poetry are not inextricably blended as they were with Wordsworth. Indeed, what must first strike the reader of Coleridge's poetry is its independence of the time which produced it. Save for the few political odes there is almost nothing which bears unmistakable marks of the era of its birth. The dawn of Romanticism is there plainly visible, the first ripple of the wave which at last broke and spent itself in pre-Raphaelite art, but intellectual
kinship between the 'Ancient Mariner' and the opening of the century there is none. A very refined and subtle criticism might find in Coleridge's poems dealing with. supernatural subjects something of the modern psychological spirit. It is surely nearer the truth to regard them as detached from any movement of thought, and joined to their birth-time by the slender link of a renewed delight in ballad literature and medieval sentiment. 'Christabel' and The Ancient Mariner' are poems of absolute originality, owing nothing in matter or manner to any previous poet. The imagination at work in them is imagination working upon a single hint, and the artist in verse has learned from these poems a hundred times more than ever their author learned from another. William Lisle Bowles, the poetcanon of Salisbury, was the god of his youthful idolatry; but it was not long ere he surpassed his model, who must rank, however, as graceful sonneteer, and even true poet, though his vein was of the slenderest. Coleridge, as we have been told, was an epicure in sound, and who can doubt it? The exquisite vowel-music of 'Christabel,' its delicate modulations and magic suggestiveness breathe the very spirit of a vision of enchantment. Here, and in 'Kubla Khan,' the subtlest effects of this the greatest English metrical artist since Milton, were obtained; an artist who, like Milton, was a careful workman, conscious not only of the beauty of the results of his skill, but of how the results were arrived at. With Wordsworth it was different. While the richness of the melodies of Coleridge is wanting to him, his music, where there is music at all, is less sensuous, more bracing, and usually born of an inspiring idea which seemed, without the poet's conscious guidance, to build itself a lasting home of perfect sound.