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- English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 10/33 -

on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter."

This poem, though written in 1797, remained, like _Christabel_, in MS. till 1816. These were then published in a thin quarto volume, together with another piece called the _Pains of Sleep_, a composition of many years' later date than the other two, and of which there will be occasion to say a word or two hereafter.

At no time, however, not even in this the high-tide of its activity, was the purely poetic impulse dominant for long together in Coleridge's mind. He was born with the instincts of the orator, and still more with those of the teacher, and I doubt whether he ever really regarded himself as fulfilling the true mission of his life except at those moments when he was seeking by spoken word to exercise direct influence over his fellow-men. At the same time, however, such was the restlessness of his intellect, and such his instability of purpose, that he could no more remain constant to what he deemed his true vocation than he could to any other. This was now to be signally illustrated. Soon after the _Ancient Mariner_ was written, and some time before the volume which was to contain it appeared, Coleridge quitted Stowey for Shrewsbury to undertake the duties of a Unitarian preacher in that town. This was in the month of January 1798, [6] and it seems pretty certain, though exact dates are not to be ascertained, that he was back again at Stowey early in the month of February. In the pages of the _Liberal_ (1822) William Hazlitt has given a most graphic and picturesque description of Coleridge's appearance and performance in his Shrewsbury pulpit; and, judging from this, one can well believe, what indeed was to have been antecedently expected, that had he chosen to remain faithful to his new employment he might have rivalled the reputation of the greatest preacher of the time. But his friends the Wedgwoods, the two sons of the great potter, whose acquaintance he had made a few years earlier, were apparently much dismayed at the prospect of his deserting the library for the chapel, and they offered him an annuity of L150 a year on condition of his retiring from the ministry and devoting himself entirely to the study of poetry and philosophy. Coleridge was staying at the house of Hazlitt's father when the letter containing this liberal offer reached him, "and he seemed," says the younger Hazlitt, "to make up his mind to close with the proposal in the act of tying on one of his shoes." Another inducement to so speedy an acceptance of it is no doubt to be found in the fact of its presenting to Coleridge an opportunity for the fulfilment of a cherished desire--that, namely, of "completing his education," as he regarded it, by studying the German language, and acquiring an acquaintance with the theology and philosophy of Germany in that country itself. This prospect he was enabled, through the generosity of the Wedgwoods, to put into execution towards the end of 1798. But before passing on from this culminating and, to all intents and purposes, this closing year of Coleridge's career as a poet it will be proper to attempt something like a final review of his poetic work. Admirable as much of that work is, and unique in quality as it is throughout, I must confess that it leaves on my own mind a stronger impression of the unequal and imperfect than does that of any poet at all approaching Coleridge in imaginative vigour and intellectual grasp. It is not a mere inequality and imperfection of style like that which so seriously detracts from the pleasure of reading Byron. Nor is it that the thought is often _impar sibi_--that, like Wordsworth's, it is too apt to descend from the mountain-tops of poetry to the flats of commonplace, if not into the bogs of bathos. In both these respects Coleridge may and does occasionally offend, but his workmanship is, on the whole, as much more artistic than Byron's as the material of his poetry is of more uniformly equal value than Wordsworth's. Yet, with almost the sole exception of the _Ancient Mariner_, his work is in a certain sense more disappointing than that of either. In spite of his theory as to the twofold function of poetry we must finally judge that of Coleridge, as of any other poet, by its relation to the actual. Ancient Mariners and Christabels--the people, the scenery, and the incidents of an imaginary world--may be handled by poetry once and again to the wonder and delight of man; but feats of this kind cannot-- or cannot in the Western world, at any rate--be repeated indefinitely, and the ultimate test of poetry, at least for the modern European reader, is its treatment of actualities--its relations to the world of human action, passion, sensation, thought. And when we try Coleridge's poetry in any one of these four regions of life, we seem forced to admit that, despite all its power and beauty, it at no moment succeeds in convincing us, as at their best moments Wordsworth's and even Byron's continually does, that the poet has found his true poetic vocation--that he is interpreting that aspect of life which he can interpret better than he can any other, and which no other poet, save the one who has vanquished all poets in their own special fields of achievement, can interpret as well as he. In no poem of actuality does Coleridge so victoriously show himself to be the right man at the right work as does Wordsworth in certain moods of seership and Byron in certain moments of passion. Of them at such moods and moments we feel assured that they have discovered where their real strength lies, and have put it forth to the utmost. But we never feel satisfied that Coleridge has discovered where _his_ real strength lies, and he strikes us as feeling no more certainty on the point himself. Strong as is his pinion, his flight seems to resemble rather that of the eaglet than of the full-grown eagle even to the last. He continues "mewing his mighty youth" a little too long. There is a tentativeness of manner which seems to come from a conscious aptitude for many poetic styles and an incapacity to determine which should be definitively adopted and cultivated to perfection. Hence one too often returns from any prolonged ramble through Coleridge's poetry with an unsatisfied feeling which does not trouble us on our return from the best literary country of Byron or Wordsworth. Byron has taken us by rough roads, and Wordsworth led us through some desperately flat and dreary lowlands to his favourite "bits;" but we feel that we have seen mountain and valley, wood and river, glen and waterfall at their best. But Coleridge's poetry leaves too much of the feeling of a walk through a fine country on a misty day. We may have had many a peep of beautiful scenery and occasional glimpses of the sublime; but the medium of vision has been of variable quality, and somehow we come home with an uneasy suspicion that we have not seen as much as we might. It is obvious, however, even upon a cursory consideration of the matter, that this disappointing element in Coleridge's poetry is a necessary result of the circumstances of its production; for the period of his productive activity (at least after attaining manhood) was too short to enable a mind with so many intellectual distractions to ascertain its true poetic bent, and to concentrate its energies thereupon. If he seems always to be feeling his way towards the work which he could do best, it is for the very good reason that this is what, from 1796 to 1800, he was continually doing as a matter of fact. The various styles which he attempted--and for a season, in each case, with such brilliant results--are forms of poetic expression corresponding, on the face of them, to poetic impulses of an essentially fleeting nature. The political or politico-religious odes were the offspring of youthful democratic enthusiasm; the supernatural poems, so to call them for want of a better name, had their origin in an almost equally youthful and more than equally transitory passion for the wild and wondrous. Political disillusion is fatal to the one impulse, and mere advance in years extinguishes the other. Visions of Ancient Mariners and Christabels do not revisit the mature man, and the Toryism of middle life will hardly inspire odes to anything.

With the extinction of these two forms of creative impulse Coleridge's poetic activity, from causes to be considered hereafter, came almost entirely to an end, and into what later forms it might subsequently have developed remains therefore a matter more or less of conjecture. Yet I think there is almost a sufficiency of _a priori_ evidence as to what that form would have been. Had the poet in him survived until years had "brought the philosophic mind," he would doubtless have done for the human spirit, in its purely isolated self-communings, what Wordsworth did for it in its communion with external nature. All that the poetry of Wordsworth is for the mind which loves to hold converse with the world of things; this, and more perhaps than this--if more be possible--would the poetry of Coleridge have been for the mind which abides by preference in the world of self-originating emotion and introspective thought. Wordsworth's primary function is to interpret nature to man: the interpretation of man to himself is with him a secondary process only-the response, in almost every instance, to impressions from without. This poet can nobly brace the human heart to fortitude; but he must first have seen the leech-gatherer on the lonely moor. The "presence and the spirit interfused" throughout creation is revealed to us in moving and majestic words; yet the poet requires to have felt it "in the light of setting suns and the round ocean and the living air" before he feels it "in the mind of man." But what Wordsworth grants only to the reader who wanders with him in imagination by lake and mountain, the Muse of Coleridge, had she lived, would have bestowed upon the man who has entered into his inner chamber and shut to the door. This, it seems to me, is the work for which genius, temperament, and intellectual habit would alike have fitted him. For while his feeling for internal nature was undoubtedly less profound, less mystically penetrating than Wordsworth's, his sensibilities in general were incomparably quicker and more subtle than those of the friend in whom he so generously recognised a master; and the reach of his sympathies extends to forms of human emotion, to subjects of human interest which lay altogether outside the somewhat narrow range of Wordsworth's.

And, with so magnificent a furniture of those mental and moral qualities which should belong to "a singer of man to men," it must not be forgotten that his technical equipment for the work was of the most splendidly effective kind. If a critic like Mr. Swinburne seems to speak in exaggerated praise of Coleridge's lyrics, we can well understand their enchantment for a master of music like himself. Probably it was the same feeling which made Shelley describe _France_ as "the finest ode in the English language." With all, in fact, who hold--as it is surely plausible to hold--that the first duty of a singer is to sing, the poetry of Coleridge will always be more likely to be classed above than below its merits, great as they are. For, if we except some occasional lapses in his sonnets--a metrical form in which, at his best, he is quite "out of the running" with Wordsworth--his melody never fails him. He is a singer always, as Wordsworth is not always, and Byron almost never. The _'olian Harp_ to which he so loved to listen does not more surely respond in music to the breeze of heaven than does Coleridge's poetic utterance to the wind of his inspiration. Of the dreamy fascination which Love exercises over a listening ear I have already spoken; and there is hardly less charm in the measure and assonances of the _Circassian Love Chant. Christabel_ again, considered solely from the metrical point of view, is a veritable _tour de force_--the very model of a metre for romantic legend: as which, indeed, it was imitated with sufficient grace and spirit, but seldom with anything approaching to Coleridge's melody, by Sir Walter Scott.

Endowed therefore with so glorious a gift of song, and only not fully master of his poetic means because of the very versatility of his artistic power and the very variety and catholicity of his youthful sympathies, it is unhappily but too certain that the world has lost much by that perversity of conspiring accidents which so untimely silenced Coleridge's muse. And the loss is the more trying to posterity because he seems, to a not, I think, too curiously considering criticism, to have once actually struck that very chord which would

English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 10/33

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