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- English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 2/33 -


designed to simplify the study of the language for "boys just initiated," he proposed to substitute for the name of "ablative" that of "quale-quare-quidditive case." The mixture of amiable simplicity and not unamiable pedantry to which this stroke of nomenclature testifies was further illustrated in his practice of diversifying his sermons to his village flock with Hebrew quotations, which he always commended to their attention as "the immediate language of the Holy Ghost"--a practice which exposed his successor, himself a learned man, to the complaint of his rustic parishioners, that for all his erudition no "immediate language of the Holy Ghost" was ever to be heard from _him_. On the whole the Rev. John Coleridge appears to have been a gentle and kindly eccentric, whose combination of qualities may have well entitled him to be compared, as his famous son was wont in after- life to compare him, to Parson Adams.

Of the poet's mother we know little; but it is to be gathered from such information as has come to us through Mr. Gillman from Coleridge himself that, though reputed to have been a "woman of strong mind," she exercised less influence on the formation of her son's mind and character than has frequently been the case with the not remarkable mothers of remarkable men. "She was," says Mr. Gillman, "an uneducated woman, industriously attentive to her household duties, and devoted to the care of her husband and family. Possessing none even of the most common accomplishments of her day, she had neither love nor sympathy for the display of them in others. She disliked, as she would say, your 'harpsichord ladies,' and strongly tried to impress upon her sons their little value" (that is, of the accomplishments) "in their choice of wives." And the final judgment upon her is that she was "a very good woman, though, like Martha, over careful in many things; very ambitious for the advancement of her sons in life, but wanting, perhaps, that flow of heart which her husband possessed so largely." Of Coleridge's boyhood and school-days we are fortunate in being able to construct an unusually clear and complete idea. Both from his own autobiographic notes, from the traditionary testimony of his family, and from the no less valuable evidence of his most distinguished schoolfellow, we know that his youthful character and habits assign him very conspicuously to that perhaps somewhat small class of eminent men whose boyhood has given distinct indications of great things to come. Coleridge is as pronounced a specimen of this class as Scott is of its opposite. Scott has shown the world how commonplace a boyhood may precede a maturity of extraordinary powers. In Coleridge's case a boy of truly extraordinary qualities was father to one of the most remarkable of men. As the youngest of ten children (or of thirteen, reckoning the vicar's family of three by his first wife), Coleridge attributes the early bent of his disposition to causes the potency of which one may be permitted to think that he has somewhat exaggerated. It is not quite easy to believe that it was only through "certain jealousies of old Molly," his brother Frank's "dotingly fond nurse," and the infusions of these jealousies into his brother's mind, that he was drawn "from life in motion to life in thought and sensation." The physical impulses of boyhood, where they exist in vigour, are not so easily discouraged, and it is probable that they were naturally weaker and the meditative tendency stronger than Coleridge in after-life imagined. But to continue: "I never played," he proceeds, "except by myself, and then only acting over what I had been reading or fancying, or half one, half the other" (a practice common enough, it may be remarked, among boys of by no means morbidly imaginative habit), "cutting down weeds and nettles with a stick, as one of the seven champions of Christendom. Alas! I had all the simplicity, all the docility of the little child, but none of the child's habits. I never thought as a child--never had the language of a child." So it fared with him during the period of his home instruction, the first eight years of his life; and his father having, as scholar and schoolmaster, no doubt noted the strange precocity of his youngest son, appears to have devoted especial attention to his training. "In my ninth year," he continues, "my most dear, most revered father died suddenly. O that I might so pass away, if, like him, I were an Israelite without guile. The image of my father, my revered, kind, learned, simple-hearted father, is a religion to me."

Before he had attained his tenth year a presentation to Christ's Hospital was obtained for him by that eminent judge Mr. Justice Buller, a former pupil of his father's; and he was entered at the school on the 18th July 1782. His early bent towards poetry, though it displayed itself in youthful verse of unusual merit, is a less uncommon and arresting characteristic than his precocious speculative activity. Many a raw boy "lisps in numbers, for the numbers come;" but few discourse Alexandrian metaphysics at the same age, for the very good reason that the metaphysics as a rule do not "come." And even among those youth whom curiosity, or more often vanity, induces to dabble in such studies, one would find few indeed over whom they have cast such an irresistible spell as to estrange them for a while from poetry altogether. That this was the experience of Coleridge we have his own words to show. His son and biographer, the Rev. Derwent Coleridge, has a little antedated the poet's stages of development in stating that when his father was sent to Christ's Hospital in his eleventh year he was "already a poet, and yet more characteristically a metaphysician." A poet, yes, and a precocious scholar perhaps to boot, but a metaphysician, no; for the "delightful sketch of him by his friend and schoolfellow Charles Lamb" was pretty evidently taken not at "this period" of his life but some years later. Coleridge's own account of the matter in the _Biographia Literaria_ is clear. [1] "At a very premature age, even before my fifteenth year," he says, "I had bewildered myself in metaphysics and in theological controversy. Nothing else pleased me. History and particular facts lost all interest in my mind. Poetry (though for a schoolboy of that age I was above par in English versification, and had already produced two or three compositions which I may venture to say were somewhat above mediocrity, and which had gained me more credit than the sound good sense of my old master was at all pleased with),--poetry itself, yea, novels and romance, became insipid to me." He goes on to describe how highly delighted he was if, during his friendless wanderings on leave-days, "any passenger, especially if he were dressed in black," would enter with him into a conversation, which he soon found the means of directing to his favourite subject of "providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate; fixed fate, freewill, foreknowledge absolute." Undoubtedly it is to this period that one should refer Lamb's well-known description of "Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Logician, Metaphysician, Bard."

"How have I seen the casual passer through the cloisters stand still, entranced with admiration (while he weighed the disproportion between the speech and the garb of the young Mirandula), to hear thee unfold in thy deep and sweet intonations the mysteries of Iamblichus or Plotinus (for even in those years thou waxedst not pale at such philosophic draughts), or reciting Homer in the Greek, or Pindar, while the walls of the old Grey Friars re-echoed with the accents of the _inspired charity-boy_."

It is interesting to note such a point as that of the "deep and sweet intonations" of the youthful voice--its most notable and impressive characteristic in after-life. Another schoolfellow describes the young philosopher as "tall and striking in person, with long black hair," and as commanding "much deference" among his schoolfellows. Such was Coleridge between his fifteenth and seventeenth year, and such continued to be the state of his mind and the direction of his studies until he was won back again from what he calls "a preposterous pursuit, injurious to his natural powers and to the progress of his education," by--it is difficult, even after the most painstaking study of its explanations, to record the phenomenon without astonishment--a perusal of the sonnets of William Lisle Bowles. Deferring, however, for the present any research into the occult operation of this converting agency, it will be enough to note Coleridge's own assurance of its perfect efficacy. He was completely cured for the time of his metaphysical malady, and "well were it for me perhaps," he exclaims, "had I never relapsed into the same mental disease; if I had continued to pluck the flowers and reap the harvest from the cultivated surface instead of delving in the unwholesome quicksilver mines of metaphysic depths." And he goes on to add, in a passage full of the peculiar melancholy beauty of his prose, and full too of instruction for the biographer, "But if, in after-time, I have sought a refuge from bodily pain and mismanaged sensibility in abstruse researches, which exercised the strength and subtlety of the understanding without awakening the feelings of the heart, there was a long and blessed interval, during which my natural faculties were allowed to expand and my original tendencies to develop themselves--my fancy, and the love of nature, and the sense of beauty in forms and sounds." This "long and blessed interval" endured, as we shall see, for some eleven or twelve years.

His own account of his seduction from the paths of poetry by the wiles of philosophy is that physiology acted as the go-between. His brother Luke had come up to London to walk the hospitals, and young Samuel's insatiable intellectual curiosity immediately inspired him with a desire to share his brother's pursuit. "Every Saturday I could make or obtain leave, to the London Hospital trudged I. O! the bliss if I was permitted to hold the plaisters or attend the dressings.... I became wild to be apprenticed to a surgeon; English, Latin, yea, Greek books of medicine read I incessantly. Blanchard's _Latin Medical Dictionary_ I had nearly by heart. Briefly, it was a wild dream, which, gradually blending with, gradually gave way to, a rage for metaphysics occasioned by the essays on Liberty and Necessity in Cato's _Letters_, and more by theology." [2] At the appointed hour, however, Bowles the emancipator came, as has been said, to his relief, and having opportunely fallen in love with the eldest daughter of a widow lady of whose son he had been the patron and protector at school, we may easily imagine that his liberation from the spell of metaphysics was complete. "From this time," he says, "to my nineteenth year, when I quitted school for Jesus, Cambridge, was the era of poetry and love."

Of Coleridge's university days we know less; but the account of his schoolfellow, Charles Le Grice, accords, so far as it goes, with what would have been anticipated from the poet's school life. Although "very studious," and not unambitious of academical honours--within a few months of his entering at Jesus he won the Browne Gold Medal for a Greek Ode on the Slave Trade [3]--his reading, his friend admits, was "desultory and capricious. He took little exercise merely for the sake of exercise, but he was ready at any time to unbend his mind in conversation, and for the sake of this his room was a constant rendezvous of conversation-loving friends. I will not call them loungers, for they did not call to kill time but to enjoy it." From the same record we gather that Coleridge's interest in current politics was already keen, and that he was an eager reader, not only of Burke's famous contributions thereto, but even a devourer of all the pamphlets which swarmed during that agitated period from the press. The desultory student, however, did not altogether intermit his academical studies. In 1793 he competed for another Greek verse prize, this time unsuccessfully. He afterwards described his ode _On Astronomy_ as "the finest Greek poem I ever wrote;" [4] but, whatever may have been its merits from the point of view of scholarship, the English translation of it, made eight years after by Southey (in which form alone it now exists), seems hardly to establish its title to the peculiar merit claimed by its author for his earlier effort. The long vacation of this year, spent by him in Devonshire, is also interesting as having given birth to one of the most characteristic of the _Juvenile Poems,_ the _Songs of the Pixies_, and the closing months of 1793 were marked by the most singular episode in the poet's earlier career.

It is now perhaps impossible to ascertain whether the cause of this strange adventure of Coleridge's was, "chagrin at his disappointment in a love affair" or "a fit of dejection and despondency caused by some debts not amounting to a hundred pounds;" but, actuated by some impulse


English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 2/33

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