Изображения страниц

the word ambition applicable to him—he had no determinate wish to subdue to himself the realities of the world, he was merely urged onward by an incessant craving, the demon of discontent. But Coleridge was definitely ambitious. His endeavour, consciously pursued and to the end of his life never laid aside nor despaired of, was to survey and arrange in system the whole world of realities; he despised the restrictions which had been laid on this investigation by the narrower spirit of the philosophy of the eighteenth century; all things, spiritual as well as material, were gathered into his net; no thought was too subtle, no imagination too wild, to become a part of his vast and sensitive mind. There was, indeed, one class of his contemporaries with whom he shared this quality, and much else besides. These were the German philosophers, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. To explain the universe-that, in brief, was the object which these thinkers proposed to themselves. It seemed to them a small thing merely to lay the foundation of a science, or even of the science, as they imagined it to themselves; they must be its entire architects, they must witness its completion. But this was much as if one man were to undertake with his own hands to build a cathedral. Accordingly all that they have handed down for the benefit of posterity is a vast conception, a magnificent effort; the details of their philosophy have been found practically of hardly any value, from the entire absence of explanation and illustration. Had they worked more slowly, they would have effected much more in the end. To these men, both in spirit and in form, belonged Coleridge, yet with a difference; for besides being a philosopher, he was a poet.

The influence which Coleridge's ambition exercised on his poetry was to some extent injurious, for his great defect is the manifest strain which he puts on himself, often in passages even of his most beautiful poems; as, for instance, in the • Ode to Dejection, the last stanza but one of which is entirely spoiled by this fault. It is, however, far more manifest in his earlier than in his later poems; the Religious Musings' are scarcely anything but tumid extravagance; nor is the Ode to the Departing Year' much better, in spite of the praise which has been lavished on it by eminent critics.

But there was another result, which, though less apparent, was a far better one. For the reaction from ambition is not that petty shame which is the reaction from self-conceit; it is selfhumiliation, the acknowledgment of inferiority before a power which at once comprehends and baffles the combatant. next in dignity to the accomplishment of a great design is the resignation which leaves it unaccomplished, and yet does not


cease to believe in the possibility of its accomplishment. The traces of such a resignation, impressed upon a most tender and sensitive spirit, are to be found in all the later poems of Coleridge. Take, for instance, the following, which is indeed deficient in that imaginative power which is Coleridge's most striking excellence, but for that very reason exhibits more clearly those qualities which we have just been ascribing to him :

' How seldom, friend ! a good great man inherits
Honour or wealth, with all his worth and pains !
It sounds like stories from the land of spirits,
If any man obtain that which he merits,
Or any merit that which he obtains.
For shame, dear friend! renounce this canting strain !
What would'st thou have a good great man obtain !
Placem-titles-salary-a gilded chain-
Or throne of corses which his sword hath slain ?
Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends !
Hath 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. It must be admitted that the middle of the above poem does not correspond in dignity and beauty to the Leginning and end (and it was perhaps a half-consciousness of this that induced the poet to use his notes of admiration so profusely), but, as we have just said, passages of inferior merit are common even in Coleridge's most remarkable pieces.

Ambition, tenderness, imagination—these are the three keynotes to the character of Coleridge. Doubtless there were in the complexity of his nature other veins also, and some of inferior metal, whereby he has been a problem of no small difficulty to those who have tried honestly to understand him. But these three are his predominant qualities, those which first strike a sympathetic reader of his works; and the others we believe to have been more or less superficial, and the result of weakness : but we shall have more to say of them presently. In none of his poems do his distinctive merits appear more prominently than in the following, entitled Love, Hope, and Patience in Education ;' and here they are blended in the harmony of that wide experience which comes with declining years :

O'er wayward childhood would'st thou hold form rule,
And sun thee in the light of happy faces;

ve, Hope, and Patience, these must be thy graces, And in thine own heart let them first keep school. For as old Atlas on his broad neck places


Heaven's starry globe, and there sustains it, -so
Do these upbear the little world below
Of education,-Patience, Love, and Hope.
Methinks, I see them grouped, in seemly show,
The straightened arms upraised, the palms aslope,
And robes that, touching as adown they flow,
Distinctly blend, like snow embossed in snow.
Oh part them never! If Hope prostrate lie,

Love too will sink and die.
But Love is subtle, and doth proof derive
From her own life that Hope is yet alive;
And bending o'er with soul-transfusing eyes,
And the soft murmurs of the mother Love,
Woos back the fleeting spirit and half-supplies;
Thus Love repays to Hope what Hope first gave to Love,
Yet haply there will come a weary day,

When overtasked at length
Both Love and Hope beneath the load give way.
Then with a statue's smile, a statue's strength,
Stands the mute sister, Patience, nothing loth,

And both supporting does the work of both.' Can any other poem of this century be produced in which, with so small a compass, there is so wide a range? It begins with the schoolroom, and ends with principles that are applicable to all men and all times. The truths which it expresses are seen at once to be true; yet they are new, if not individually, at least in the colligation, the unity which binds them together. There is no outcropping of intellectual effort, of conscious observation; yet the results of both intellect and observation are there. And the whole is not like a philosophical thesis, requiring time to understand it, but is impressed on the mind at once by the imagery with which it is conjoined. It is a sort of vision, flashing on the mind at once; and undoubtedly it must have so flashed on the mind of the poet; yet for such a vision to have presented itself to him, a long exercise of the faculties must have been necessary. This is what is meant by imagination. Compare with this any of the most admired pieces of Tennyson-almost anything in 'In Memoriam' will do-whether we take the first half, in which observation is predominant, or the latter half, which abounds in thought on abstruse subjects. For instance, the following:

• Calm is the morn without a sound,

Calm as to suit a calmer grief,

And only thro' the faded leaf

The chesnut pattering to the ground; Vol. 125.–No. 249.



Calm and deep peace on this high wold,

And on these dews that drench the furze,

And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into


and gold; Calm and still light on yon great plain

That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,

And crowded farms and lessening towers

To mingle with the bounding main.' Can any one say that there is spontaneity in such lines as these? It is quite clear that they are thought out; the observation, however delicate and beautiful (and it has these qualities in a high degree), has been collected and put together with conscious knowledge; the poet is quite aware of the fact that he is a poet; he has never lost himself in any sudden vision, such as compels utterance, The lines are expressive of passion, certainly-of observation, certainly—but not of spiritual truth. Still, such softness of pathos, such originality of description, must command our admiration, however we may think it to fall short of the highest attainment possible. But what shall be said of the abstruse thinking which occupies the latter half of In Memoriam'? Such lines as these :

"That which we dare invoke to bless;

Our dearest hope, our ghastliest doubt;

He, They, One, All: within, without;
The Power in darkness whom we guess.
I found him not in world or sun,

Or engle's wing, or insect's eye;

Nor thro’ the questions men may try,

The petty cobwebs we have spun :' and those which follow, are not poetry but philosophy; and to say the truth, the philosophy is neither very original nor very good. And here again, as in the former passage, let it be noticed how entire a want there is of the 'ars celare artem; or, to speak more truly, the poet has never seen anything so transcendently wonderful, nor felt any impulse so fervid, as to carry him out of himself, and make him wholly forget every predetermined purpose and will of his own, under the influence of the force that bears him along in his unpremeditated flight. Of such an impulse there are partial traces in one work of Tennyson, and in one only; and that is ‘Maud.' In his other

he is never touched by that “frenzy of the Muses' of which Plato speaks. Tennyson cannot fail to be admired; but his admirers have confounded overcarefulness with perfection, and have assigned him


a rank

a rank among our greatest poets, which, we are convinced, he will not permanently retain.

But to return to Coleridge. Before leaving the poem on which we were commenting, there is one more remark that we must make respecting it. Since Milton wrote “Samson Agonistes,' there has not been, except this, any poem of the first rank written in English by a man beyond middle age. This is well worth noticing, for the endurance of a man's powers is the best test of the capacity of his mind. Of two of the greatest geniuses of the century, Wordsworth and Scott, it is certain that they had exhausted their powers some time before their death. And if this cannot be said with equal confidence of Byron and Shelley, who died comparatively young, it at any rate must be allowed that they had shown no decisive signs of adding to the passion and exuberance, which are the merits of early writings, those other excellencies which are the characteristics of maturer life. If we except Keats, whose promise of excellence was great, but whose performance is too undeveloped to produce the same vigorous impression as the others whom we have mentioned, these are the great poetical names of the beginning of the century. For the only genuine and truly delightful poems of Southey-his ballads-have not sufficient importance to be put in the same rank; and Moore, Campbell, and Crabbe cannot be considered so high.

We have hitherto said scarcely anything of those two poems of Coleridge by which he is most widely known, the “Ancient Mariner' and Christabel ;' and, in fact, there is scarcely anything to be said of them that is not already acknowledged and undisputed. Yet it is worth while to note briefly their distinctive character. As written in his youth, they have naturally no marks of a wide experience; nor would, perhaps, the range of his mind be easily conjectured from them. And though there are many marks of his tender sensitiveness, it does not (especially in the . Ancient Mariner’) come out as prominently as in his later poems. But for pure imagination, no man since Shakspeare has written anything to equal them. It is true that it is in many respects a dreamlike imagination; the links which bind it on to reality are few; its wanderings

* Tennyson and his imitators would do well to ponder upon the words of Plato: ος δ' άν άνευ μανίας Μουσών επί ποιητικές θύρας αφίκηται, πεισθείς ώς άρα εκ τέχνης ικανός ποιητής εσόμενος, ατελής αυτός τε και η ποίησις υπό της των μαινομένων και του tuopovouvros noavioon.-Phædrus, p. 245, A. We subjoin the translation of this passage by the Master of Trinity in his admirable edition of the Phædrus' recently published :- Whoso knocks at the door of Poesy untouched with the Muse's frenzy-fondly persuading himself that art alone will make him a thorough poet-ueither he nor his works will ever attain perfection; but are destined, for all their cold propriety, to be eclipsed by the effusions of the inspired madman.'

G 2


« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »