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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Edward Woodberry (1855–1930)
 
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, the English poet and philosopher, was born at Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire, October 21st, 1772. He was the ninth and youngest son of the vicar of the parish,—a man characterized by learning and also by some of its foibles,—under whose care he passed his childhood; but on the death of his father he was sent up to London to be educated at Christ’s Hospital, and there spent, in companionship with Lamb, his school days from 1782 to 1791. He went in the latter year to Jesus College Cambridge. His career as an undergraduate was marked by an escapade,—his enlistment in the King’s Regiment of Light Dragoons in the winter of 1793–94, from which he was released by the influence of his relatives; and in more important ways by his friendship with Southey, whom he found on a visit to Oxford, and his engagement to Sarah Fricker in the summer of 1794. He had already been attached to another young lady, Mary Evans, with whose family he had been intimate. In December 1794 he left Cambridge without taking a degree, and on October 21st, 1795, he was married. His biography from this point is one of confused and intricate detail, which only a long story could set forth plainly and exactly. Its leading external events were a residence in Germany in 1798–99 and a voyage to Malta, with travel in Sicily and Italy in 1804–6; in its inward development, the turning-points of his life were his first intimacy with the Wordsworths in 1797, during which his best poems were composed; his subjection to the opium habit, with increasing domestic unhappiness, in 1801–2; and his retreat under medical control to Highgate in 1816. He was practically separated from his family from the time of his voyage to Malta. Troubles of many kinds filled all these years, but he had always a power to attract friends who were deeply interested in his welfare, and he was never without admirers and helpers. Before he withdrew to Highgate he had resided first at Stowey in the neighborhood of Tom Poole, and later at Greta Hall near the Wordsworths; but he was often away from home, and after he ceased to be an inmate there, from 1806 to 1816, he led a wandering life, either in lodgings frequently changed, or in visits to his friends. His resources were always small, and from the start his friends were his patrons, making up subscriptions, loans, and gifts for him; in 1798 the Wedgwoods gave him a pension of £150 for life, which was soon secured for the support of his family, and in 1812 one-half of this was withdrawn; in 1825 he was granted a royal pension of one hundred guineas, and when this lapsed in 1830 Frere made it up to him. De Quincey had distinguished himself by an act of singular and impulsive generosity to him, upon first acquaintance. He was always cared for, though his indulgence in opium made it difficult for those who knew the fact to assist him directly in a wise way. His pecuniary embarrassment, however, was constant and trying during a great part of his life; his own wretchedness of spirit, under the painful conditions of his bodily state and his moral as well as material position, was very great; but through all these sufferings and trials he maintained sufficient energy to leave behind him a considerable body of literary work. He died July 25th, 1834.  1
  The poetic genius of Coleridge, the highest of his many gifts, found brilliant and fascinating expression. His poems—those in which his fame lives—are as unique as they are memorable; and though their small number, their confined range, and the brief period during which his faculty was exercised with full freedom and power, seem to indicate a narrow vein, yet the remainder of his work in prose and verse leaves an impression of extraordinary and abundant intellectual force. In proportion as his imaginative creations stand apart, the spirit out of which they came must have possessed some singularity: and if the reader is not content with simple æsthetic appreciation of what the gods provide, but has some touch of curiosity leading him to look into the source of such remarkable achievement and its human history, he is at once interested in the personality of the “subtle-souled psychologist,” as Shelley with his accurate critical insight first named him; in experiencing the fascination of the poetry one remembers the charm which Coleridge had in life, that quality which arrested attention in all companies and drew men’s minds and hearts with a sense of something marvelous in him—“the most wonderful man,” said Wordsworth, “that I ever met.” The mind and heart of Coleridge, his whole life, have been laid open by himself and his friends and acquaintances without reserve in many volumes of letters and memoirs; it is easy to figure him as he lived and to recover his moods and aspect: but in order to conceive his nature and define its traits, it is necessary to take account especially of his incomplete and less perfect work, of his miscellaneous interests, and those activities which filled and confused his life without having any important share in establishing his fame.  2
  The intellectual precocity which is the leading trait of Coleridge’s boyhood, in the familiar portrait of “the inspired charity-boy” drawn by Lamb from schoolboy memories, is not unusual in a youth of genius; but the omnivorousness of knowledge which he then displayed continued into his manhood. He consumed vast quantities of book-learning. It is a more remarkable characteristic that from the earliest period in which he comes into clear view, he was accustomed to give out his ideas with freedom in an inexhaustible stream of talk. The activity of his mind was as phenomenal as its receptivity. In his college days, too, he was fanatical in all his energies. The remark of Southey after Shelley’s visit to him, that here was a young man who was just what he himself had been in his college days, is illustrative; for if Southey was then inflamed with radicalism, Coleridge was yet more deeply infected and mastered by that wild fever of the revolutionary dawn. The tumult of Coleridge’s mind, its incessant action, the lack of discipline in his thought, of restraint in his expression, of judgment in his affairs, are all important elements in his character at a time which in most men would be called the formative period of manhood, but which in him seems to have been intensely chaotic; what is most noticeable, however, is the volume of his mental energy. He expressed himself, too, in ways natural to such self-abundance. He was always a discourser, if the name may be used, from the London days at the “Salutation and the Cat” of which Lamb tells, saying that the landlord was ready to retain him because of the attraction of his conversation for customers; and as he went on to the more set forms of such monologue, he became a preacher without pay in Unitarian chapels, a journalist with unusual capacity for ready and sonorous writing in the press, a composer of whole periodicals such as his ventures The Watchman and The Friend, and a lecturer using only slight notes as the material of his remarks upon literature, education, philosophy, theology, or whatever the subject might be. In all these methods of expression which he took up one after the other, he merely talked in an ample way upon multifarious topics; in the conversation, sermon, leading article, written discourse, or flowing address, he was master of a swelling and often brilliant volubility, but he had neither the certainty of the orator nor the unfailing distinction of the author; there was an occasional and impromptu quality, a colloquial and episodical manner, the style of the irresponsible speaker. In his earlier days especially, the dominant note in Coleridge’s whole nature was excitement. He was always animated, he was often violent, he was always without the principle of control. Indeed, a weakness of moral power seems to have been congenital, in the sense that he was not permanently bound by a practical sense of duty nor apparently observant of what place duty has in real life. There was misdirection of his affairs from the time when they came into his own hands; there was impulsiveness, thoughtlessness, a lack of judgment which augured ill for him; and in its total effect this amounted to folly. His intoxication with the scheme known as Pantisocracy, by which he with Southey and a few like-minded projectors were to found a socialistic community on the banks of the Susquehanna, is the most obvious comment on his practical sense. But his marriage, with the anecdotes of its preliminaries (one of which was that in those colloquies with Lamb at the London tavern, so charmingly described by his boon companion, he had forgotten his engagement or was indifferent to it), more strikingly exemplifies the irresponsible course of his life, more particularly as it proved to be ill-sorted, full of petty difficulties and makeshift expedients, and in the end a disastrous failure. A radical social scheme and an imprudent marriage might have fallen to his share of human folly, however, without exciting remark, if in other ways or at a later time he had exhibited the qualities which would allow one to dismiss these matters as mere instances of immaturity; but wherever Coleridge’s reasonable control over himself or his affairs is looked to, it appears to have been feeble. On the other hand, the constancy of his excitement is plain. It was not only mental, but physical. He was, as a young man, full of energy and capable of a good deal of hard exercise; he had animal spirits, and Wordsworth describes him as “noisy” and “gamesome,” as one who
  His limbs would toss about him with delight,
Like branches when strong winds the trees annoy;”
and from several passages of his own writing, which are usually disregarded, the evidence of a spirit of rough humor and fun is easily obtained. The truth is that Coleridge changed a great deal in his life; he felt himself to be very different in later years from what he was in the time when to his memory even he was a sort of glorified spirit: and this earlier Coleridge had many traits which are ignored sometimes, as Carlyle ignored them, and are sometimes remembered rather as idealizations of his friends in their affectionate thoughts of him, but in any event are irreconcilable with the figure of the last period of his life.
  3
  It has been suggested that there was something of disease or at least of ill health in Coleridge always, and that it should be regarded as influencing his temperament. Whether it were so or not, the plea itself shows the fact. If excitement was the dominant note, as has been said, in his whole nature, it could not exist without a physical basis and accompaniment; and his bodily state appears to have been often less one of animation than of agitation, and his correspondence frequently discloses moods that seem almost frantic. In the issue, under stress of pain and trouble, he became an opium-eater; but his physical nature may fairly be described as predisposed to such states as lead to the use of opium and also result from its use, with the attendant mental moods. His susceptibility to sensuous impressions, to a voluptuousness of the entire being, together with a certain lassitude and languor, lead to the same conclusion, which thus seems to be supported on all sides,—that Coleridge was, in his youth and early manhood, fevered through all his intellectual and sensuous nature, and deficient on the moral and practical sides in those matters that related to his personal affairs. It is desirable to bring this out in plain terms, because in Coleridge it is best to acknowledge at once that his character was, so far as our part—the world’s part—in him is concerned, of less consequence than his temperament; a subtler and more profound thing than character, though without moral meaning. It is not unfair to say, since literature is to be regarded most profitably as the expression of human personality, that with Coleridge the modern literature of temperament, as it has been lately recognized in extreme phases, begins; not that temperament is a new thing in the century now closing, nor that it has been without influence hitherto, but that now it is more often considered, and has in fact more often been, an exclusive ground of artistic expression. The temperament of Coleridge was one of diffused sensuousness physically, and of abnormal mental moods,—moods of weakness, languor, collapse, of visionary imaginative life with a night atmosphere of the spectral, moonlit, swimming, scarcely substantial world; and the poems he wrote, which are the contributions he made to the world’s literature, are based on this temperament, like some Fata Morgana upon the sea. The apparent exclusion of reality from the poems in which his genius was most manifest finds its analogue in the detachment of his own mind from the moral, the practical, the usual in life as he led it in his spirit; and his work of the highest creative sort, which is all there is to his enduring fame, stands amid his prose and verse composition of a lower sort like an island in the waste of waters. This may be best shown, perhaps, by a gradual approach through his cruder to his more perfect compositions.  4
  The cardinal fact in Coleridge’s genius is that notwithstanding his immense sensuous susceptibilities and mental receptivity, and the continual excitement of his spirit, he never rose into the highest sphere of creative activity except for the brief period called his annus mirabilis, when his great poems were written; and with this is the further related fact that in him we witness the spectacle of the imaginative instinct overborne and supplanted by the intellectual faculty exercising its speculative and critical functions; and in addition, one observes in his entire work an extraordinary inequality not only of treatment, but also of subject-matter. In general, he was an egoistic writer. His sensitiveness to nature was twofold: in the first place he noticed in the objects and movements of nature evanescent and minute details, and as his sense of beauty was keen, he saw and recorded truly the less obvious and less common loveliness in the phenomena of the elements and the seasons, and this gave distinction to his mere description and record of fact; in the second place he often felt in himself moods induced by nature, but yet subjective,—states of his own spirit, which sometimes deepened the charm of night, for example, by his enjoyment of its placid aspects, and sometimes imparted to the external world a despair reflected from his personal melancholy. In his direct treatment of nature, however, as Mr. Stopford Brooke points out, he seldom achieves more than a catalogue of his sensations, which though touched with imaginative detail are never lifted and harmonized into lyrical unity; though he can moralize nature in Wordsworth’s fashion, when he does so the result remains Wordsworth’s and is stamped with that poet’s originality; and in his own original work Coleridge never equaled either the genius of Shelley, who can identify nature with himself, or the charm of Tennyson, who can at least parallel nature’s phenomena with his own human moods. Coleridge would not be thought of as a poet of nature, except in so far as he describes what he observes in the way of record, or gives a metaphysical interpretation to phenomena. This is the more remarkable because he had to an eminent degree that intellectual power, that overmastering desire of the mind, to rationalize the facts of life. It was this quality that made him a philosopher, an analyst, a critic on the great lines of Aristotle, seeking to impose an order of ethics and metaphysics on all artistic productions. But in those poems in which he describes nature directly and without metaphysical thought, there is no trace of anything more than a sensuous order of his own perceptions. Beautiful and often unique as his nature poems are, they are not creative. They are rather in the main autobiographic; and it is surprising to notice how large a proportion of his verse is thus autobiographic, not in those phases of his own life which may be, or at least are thought of as representative of human life in the mass, but which are personal, such as the lines written after hearing Wordsworth read the ‘Prelude,’ or those entitled ‘Dejection.’ When his verse is not confined to autobiographic expression, it is often a product of his interest in his friends or in his family. What is not personal in it, of this sort, is apt to be domestic or social.  5
  If we turn from the poems of nature to those concerned with man, a similar shallowness, either of interest or of power, appears. He was in early years a radical; he was stirred by the Revolution in France, and he was emotionally charged with the ideas of the time,—ideas of equality, fraternity, and liberty. But this interest died out, as is shown by his political verse. He had none but a social and a philosophical interest in any case. Man, the individual, did not at any time attract him. There was nothing dramatic in his genius, in the narrow and exact sense: he did not engage his curiosity or his philosophy in individual fortunes. It results from this limitation that his verse lacks human interest of the dramatic kind. The truth was that he was interested in thought rather than in deeds, in human nature rather than in its concrete pity and terror. Thus he did not seize on life itself as the material of his imagination and reflection. In the case of man as in the case of nature he gives us only an egoistic account, telling us of his own private fortune, his fears, pains, and despairs, but only as a diary gives them; as he did not transfer his nature impressions into the world of creative art, so he did not transfer his personal experiences into that world.  6
  What has been said would perhaps be accepted, were it not for the existence of those poems, ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ ‘Christabel,’ ‘Kubla Khan,’ which are the marvelous creations of his genius. In these it will be said there is both a world of nature new created, and a dramatic method and interest. It is enough for the purpose of the analysis if it be granted that nowhere else in Coleridge’s work, except in these and less noticeably in a few other instances, do these high characteristics occur. The very point which is here to be brought out is that Coleridge applied that intellectual power, that overmastering desire of the mind to rationalize the phenomena of life, which has been mentioned as his great mental trait,—that he applied this faculty with different degrees of power at different times, so that his poetry falls naturally into higher and inferior categories; in the autobiographic verse, in the political and dramatic verse which forms so large a part of his work, it appears that he did not have sufficient feeling or exercise sufficient power to raise it out of the lower levels of composition; in his great works of constructive and impersonal art, of moral intensity or romantic beauty and fascination, he did so exercise the creative imagination as to make these of the highest rank, or at least one of them.  7
  ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ apart from its many minor merits, has this distinction in Coleridge’s work,—it is a poem of perfect unity. ‘Christabel’ is a fragment, ‘Kubla Khan’ is a glimpse; and though the ‘Ode to France,’ ‘Love, Youth, and Age,’ and possibly a few other short pieces, have this highest artistic virtue of unity, yet in them it is of a simpler kind. ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ on the other hand, is a marvel of construction in that its unity is less complex than manifold; it exists, however the form be examined. In the merely external sense, the telling of the tale to the Wedding Guest, with the fact that the wedding is going on, gives it unity; in the merely internal sense, the moral lesson of the salvation of the slayer of the albatross by the medium of love felt toward living things, subtly yet lucidly worked out as the notion is, gives it unity; but in still other ways, as a story of connected and consequential incidents with a plot, a change of fortune, a climax, and the other essentials of this species of tale-telling, it has unity; and if its conception either of the physical or the ethical world be analyzed, these too—and these are the fundamental things—are found consistent wholes. It nevertheless remains true that this system of nature as a vitalized but not humanized mode of life, with its bird, its spirit, its magical powers, is not the nature that we know or believe to be,—it is a modern presentation of an essentially primitive and animistic belief; and similarly this system of human life,—if the word human can be applied to it, with its dead men, its skeleton ship, its spirit sailors, its whole miracle of spectral being,—is not the life we know or believe to be; it is an incantation, a simulacrum. It may still be true therefore that the imaginative faculty of Coleridge was not applied either to nature or human life, in the ordinary sense. And this it is that constitutes the uniqueness of the poem, and its wonderful fascination. Coleridge fell heir, by the accidents of time and the revolutions of taste, to the ballad style, its simplicity, directness, and narrative power; he also was most attracted to the machinery of the supernatural, the weird, the terrible, almost to the grotesque and horrid, as these literary motives came into fashion in the crude beginnings of romanticism in our time; his subtle mind, his fine senses, his peculiar susceptibility to the mystic and shadowy in nature,—as shown by his preference of the moonlight, dreamy, or night aspects of real nature, to its brilliant beauties in the waking world,—gave him ease and finesse in the handling of such subject-matter; and he lived late enough to know that all this eerie side of human experience and imaginative capacity, inherited from primeval ages but by no means yet deprived of plausibility, could be effectively used only as an allegoric or scenic setting of what should be truth to the ethical sense; he combined one of the highest lessons of advanced civilization, one of the last results of spiritual perception,—the idea of love toward life in any form,—with the animistic beliefs and supernatural fancies of the crude ages of the senses. This seems to be the substantial matter; and in this he was, to repeat Shelley’s phrase, the “subtle-souled psychologist.” The material of his imagination, on the sensuous side, was of the slightest: it was the supernaturalism of the romantic movement, somewhat modified by being placed in connection with the animal world; and he put this to use as a means of illustrating spiritual truth. He thus became the first of those who have employed the supernatural in our recent literature without losing credence for it, as an allegory of psychological states, moral facts, or illusions real to the eye that sees them and having some logical relation to the past of the individual; of such writers Hawthorne and Poe are eminent examples, and both of them, it may be remarked, are writers in whom temperament rather than character is the ground of their creative work. The intimate kinship between imagination so directed and the speculative philosophical temper is plain to see. In ‘Christabel’ on the other hand, the moral substance is not apparent: the place filled by the moral ideas which are the centers of the narrative in ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ is taken here by emotional situations; but the supernaturalism is practically the same in both poems, and in both is associated with that mystery of the animal world to man, most concentrated and vivid in the fascination ascribed traditionally to the snake, which is the animal motive in ‘Christabel’ as the goodness of the albatross in the ‘The Ancient Mariner.’ In these poems the good and the bad omens that ancient augurs minded are made again dominant over men’s imagination. Such are the signal and unique elements in these poems, which have besides that wealth of beauty in detail, of fine diction, of liquid melody, of sentiment, thought, and image, which belong only to poetry of the highest order, and which are too obvious to require any comment. ‘Kubla Khan’ is a poem of the same kind, in which the mystical effect is given almost wholly by landscape; it is to ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’ what protoplasm is to highly organized cells.  8
  If it be recognized then that the imagery of Coleridge in the characteristic parts of these cardinal poems is as pure allegory, is as remote from nature or man, as is the machinery of fairy-land and chivalry in Spenser, for example, and he obtains credibility by the psychological and ethical truth presented in this imagery, it is not surprising that his work is small in amount; for the method is not only a difficult one, but the poetic machinery itself is limited and meager. The poverty of the subject-matter is manifest, and the restrictions to its successful use are soon felt. It may well be doubted whether ‘Christabel’ would have gained by being finished. In ‘The Ancient Mariner’ the isolation of the man is a great advantage; if there had been any companion for him, the illusion could not have been entire: as it is, what he experiences has the wholeness and truth within itself of a dream, or of a madman’s world,—there is no standard of appeal outside of his own senses and mind, no real world; but in ‘Christabel’ the serpentine fable goes on in a world of fact and action, and as soon as the course of the story involved this fable in the probabilities and actual occurrences of life, it might well be that the tale would have turned into one of simple enchantment and magic, as seems likely from what has been told of its continuation; certainly it could not have equaled the earlier poem, or have been in the same kind with it, unless the unearthly magic, the spell, were finally completely dissolved into the world of moral truth as is the case with ‘The Ancient Mariner.’ Coleridge found it still more impossible to continue ‘Kubla Khan.’ It seems a fair inference to conclude that Coleridge’s genius, however it suffered from the misfortunes and ills of his life, was in these works involved in a field, however congenial, yet of narrow range and infertile in itself. In poetic style it is to be observed that he kept what he had gained; the turbid diction of the earlier period never came back to trouble him, and the cadences he had formed still gave their music to his verse. The change, the decline, was not in his power of style; it was in his power of imagination, if at all, but the fault may have laid in the capacities of the subject-matter. A similar thing certainly happened in his briefer ballad poetry, in that of which ‘Love,’ ‘The Three Graces,’ ‘Alice Du Clos,’ and ‘The Dark Ladie,’ are examples; the matter there, the machinery of the romantic ballad, was no longer capable of use; that sort of literature was dead from the exhaustion of its motives. The great ‘Ode to France,’ in which he reached his highest point of eloquent and passionate expression, seems to mark the extinction in himself of the revolutionary impulse. On the whole, while the excellence of much of the remainder of his verse, even in later years, is acknowledged, and its originality in several instances, may it not be that in his greatest work Coleridge came to an end because of an impossibility in the kind itself? The supernatural is an accessory rather than a main element in the interpretation of life which literary genius undertakes; Coleridge so subordinates it here by making it contributory to a moral truth; but such a practice would seem to be necessarily incidental to a poet who was also so intellectual as Coleridge, and not to be adopted as a permanent method of self-expression.  9
  From whatever cause, the fact was that Coleridge ceased to create in poetry, and fell back on that fluent, manifold, voluminous faculty he possessed of absorbing and giving out ideas in vast quantities, as it were by bulk. He attended especially to the theory of art as he found it illustrated in the greatest poets, and he popularized among literary men a certain body of doctrine regarding criticism, its growth and methods; and in later years he worked out metaphysical theological views which he inculcated in ways which won for him recognition as a practical influence in contemporary church opinion. In these last years of his lecturing and discoursing in private, the figure he makes is pathetic, though Carlyle describes it with a grim humor, as any one may read in the ‘Life of Sterling’: over against that figure should be set the descriptions of the young Coleridge by Dorothy Wordsworth and Lamb; and after these perhaps the contrast which Coleridge himself draws between his spirit and his body may enable a reader to fuse the two—youth and age—into one. Whatever were the weaknesses of his nature and the trials of his life, of which one keeps silent, he was deeply loved by friends of many different minds, who if they grew cold, had paid at least once this tribute to the charm, the gentleness, and the delight of his human companionship.  10
 
 
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