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- English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 20/33 -


London again--Second recourse to journalism--The _Courier_ articles--The Shakespeare lectures--Production of _Remorse_--At Bristol again as lecturer--Residence at Calne--Increasing ill health and embarrassment--Retirement to Mr. Gillman's.

[1810-1816.]

The life led by Coleridge during the six years next ensuing is difficult to trace, even in the barest outline; to give a detailed and circumstantial account of it from any ordinarily accessible source of information is impossible. Nor is it, I imagine, very probable that even the most exhaustive search among whatever imprinted records may exist in the possession of his friends would at all completely supply the present lack of biographical material. For not only had it become Coleridge's habit to disappear from the sight of his kinsmen and acquaintances for long periods together; he had fallen almost wholly silent also. They not only ceased to see him, but they ceased to hear of him. Letters addressed to him, even on subjects of the greatest importance, would remain for months unnoticed, and in many instances would receive no answer at all. His correspondence during the next half-dozen years must have been of the scantiest amount and the most intermittent character, and a biographer could hope, therefore, for but little aid in bridging over the large gaps in his knowledge of this period, even if every extant letter written by Coleridge during its continuance were to be given to the world.

Such light, too, as is retrospectively thrown upon it by Coleridge's correspondence of a later date is of the most fitful description,-- scarcely more than serves, in fact, for the rendering of darkness visible. Even the sudden and final departure from the Lakes it leaves involved in as much obscurity as ever. Writing to Mr. Thomas Allsop [1] from Ramsgate twelve years afterwards (8th October 1822) he says that he "counts four grasping and griping sorrows in his past life." The first of these "was when" [no date given] "the vision of a happy home sank for ever, and it became impossible for me longer even to hope for domestic happiness under the name of husband." That is plain enough on the whole, though it still leaves us in some uncertainty as to whether the "sinking of the vision" was as gradual as the estrangement between husband and wife, or whether he refers to some violent rupture of relations with Mrs. Coleridge, possibly precipitating his departure from the Lakes. If soothe second "griping and grasping sorrow" followed very quickly on the first, for he says that it overtook him "on the night of his arrival from Grasmere with Mr. and Mrs. Montagu;" while in the same breath and paragraph, and as though undoubtedly referring to the same thing, he speaks of the "destruction of a friendship of fifteen years when, just at the moment of Tenner and Curtis's (the publishers) bankruptcy" (by which Coleridge was a heavy loser, but which did not occur till seven years afterwards), somebody indicated by seven asterisks and possessing an income of L1200 a-year, was "totally transformed into baseness." There is certainly not much light here, any more than in the equally enigmatical description of the third sorrow as being "in some sort included in the second," so that "what the former was to friendship the latter was to a still more inward bond." The truth is, that all Coleridge's references to himself in his later years are shrouded in a double obscurity. One veil is thrown over them by his deliberate preference for abstract and mystical forms of expression, and another perhaps by that kind of shameful secretiveness which grows upon all men who become the slaves of concealed indulgences, and which often displays itself on occasions when it has no real object to gain of any kind whatever.

Thus much only we know, that on reaching London in the summer of 1810 Coleridge became the guest of the Montagus, and that, after some months' residence with them, he left as the immediate result of some difference with his host which was never afterwards composed. Whether it arose from the somewhat trivial cause to which De Quincey has, admittedly upon the evidence of "the learned in literary scandal," referred it, it is now impossible to say. But at some time or other, towards the close probably of 1810, or in the early months of 1811, Coleridge quitted Mr. Montagu's house for that of Mr. John Morgan, a companion of his early Bristol days, and a common friend of his and Southey's; and here, at No. 7 Portland Place, Hammersmith, he was residing when, for the second time, he resolved to present himself to the London public in the capacity of lecturer. His services were on this occasion engaged by the London Philosophical Society, at Crane Court, Fleet Street, and their prospectus announced that on Monday, 18th November, Mr. Coleridge would commence "a course of lectures on Shakspeare and Milton, in illustration of the principles of poetry and their application, on grounds of criticism, to the most popular works of later English poets, those of the living included. After an introductory lecture on false criticism (especially in poetry) and on its causes, two-thirds of the remaining course," continues the prospectus, "will be assigned, 1st, to a philosophical analysis and explanation of all the principal characters of our great dramatists, as Othello, Falstaff, Richard the Third, Lago, Hamlet, etc., and to a critical comparison of Shakspeare in respect of diction, imagery, management of the passions, judgment in the construction of his dramas--in short, of all that belongs to him as a poet, and as a dramatic poet, with his contemporaries or immediate successors, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ford, Massinger, and in the endeavour to determine which of Shakespeare's merits and defects are common to him, with other writers of the same age, and what remain peculiar to his genius."

A couple of months before the commencement of this course, viz. in September 1811, Coleridge seems to have entered into a definite journalistic engagement with his old editor, Mr. Daniel Stuart, then the proprietor of the _Courier_. It was not, however, his first connection with that journal. He had already published at least one piece of verse in its columns, and two years before, while the _Friend_ was still in existence, he had contributed to it a series of letters on the struggle of the Spaniards against their French invaders. In these, as though to show that under the ashes of his old democratic enthusiasm still lived its wonted fires, and that the inspiration of a popular cause was only needed to reanimate them, we find, with less of the youthful lightness of touch and agility of movement, a very near approach to the vigour of his early journalistic days. Whatever may be thought of the historic value of the parallel which he institutes between the struggle of the Low Countries against their tyrant, and that of the Peninsula against its usurping conqueror, it is worked out with remarkable ingenuity of completeness. Whole pages of the letters are radiant with that steady flame of hatred which, ever since the hour of his disillusionment, had glowed in his breast at the name and thought of Bonaparte; and whenever he speaks of the Spaniards, of Spanish patriotism, of the Spanish Cortes, we see that the names of "the people," of "freedom," of "popular assembly," have some of their old magic for him still. The following passage is almost pathetic in its reminder of the days of 1792, before that modern Leonidas, the young French Republic, had degenerated into the Xerxes of the Empire.

"The power which raised up, established, and enriched the Dutch republic,--the same mighty power is no less at work in the present struggle of the Spanish nation, a power which mocks the calculations of ordinary statecraft too subtle to be weighed against it, and mere outward brute force too different from it to admit of comparison. A power as mighty in the rational creation as the element of electricity in the material world; and, like that element, infinite in its affinities, infinite in its mode of action, combining the most discordant natures, fixing the most volatile, and arming the sluggish vapour of the marsh with arrows of fire; working alike in silence and in tempest, in growth and in destruction; now contracted to an individual soul, and now, as in a moment, dilating itself over a whole nation! Am I asked what this mighty power may be, and wherein it exists? If we are worthy of the fame which we possess as the countrymen of Hampden, Russell, and Algernon Sidney, we shall find the answer in our own hearts. It is the power of the insulted free-will, steadied by the approving conscience and struggling against brute force and iniquitous compulsion for the common rights of human nature, brought home to our inmost souls by being, at the same time, the rights of our betrayed, insulted, and bleeding country."

And as this passage recalls the most striking characteristics of his earlier style, so may its conclusion serve as a fair specimen of the calmer eloquence of his later manner:--

"It is a painful truth, sir, that these men who appeal most to facts, and pretend to take them for their exclusive guide, are the very persons who most disregard the light of experience when it refers them to the mightiness of their own inner nature, in opposition to those forces which they can see with their eyes, and reduce to figures upon a slate. And yet, sir, what is history for the greater and more useful part but a voice from the sepulchres of our forefathers, assuring us, from their united experience, that our spirits are as much stronger than our bodies as they are nobler and more permanent? The historic muse appears in her loftiest character as the nurse of Hope. It is her appropriate praise that her records enable the magnanimous to silence the selfish and cowardly by appealing to actual events for the information of these truths which they themselves first learned from the surer oracle of their own reason."

But this reanimation of energy was but a transient phenomenoa It did not survive the first freshness of its exciting cause. The Spanish insurrection grew into the Peninsular war, and though the glorious series of Wellington's victories might well, one would think, have sustained the rhetorical temperature at its proper pitch, it failed to do so. Or was it, as the facts appear now and then to suggest, that Coleridge at Grasmere or Keswick-Coleridge in the inspiring (and restraining) companionship of close friends and literary compeers--was an altogether different man from Coleridge in London, alone with his thoughts and his opium? The question cannot be answered with confidence, and the fine quality of the lectures on Shakespeare is sufficient to show that, for some time, at any rate, after his final migration to London, his critical faculty retained its full vigour. But it is beyond dispute that his regular contributions to the _Courier_ in 1811-12 are not only vastly inferior to his articles of a dozen years before in the _Morning Post_ but fall sensibly short of the level of the letters of 1809, from which extract has just been made. Their tone is spiritless, and they even lack distinction of style. Their very subjects, and the mode of treating them, appear to show a change in Coleridge's attitude towards public affairs if not in the very conditions of his journalistic employment. They have much more of the character of newspaper hack-work than his earlier contributions. He seems to have been, in many instances, set to write a mere report, and often a rather dry and mechanical report of this or the other Peninsular victory. He seldom or never discusses the political situation, as his wont had been, _au large_; and in place of broad statesmanlike reflection on the scenes and actors in the great world-drama then in progress, we meet with too much of that sort of criticism on the consistency and capacity of "our contemporary, the _Morning Chronicle_," which had less attraction, it may be suspected, even for the public of its own day than for the journalistic profession, while for posterity, of course, it possesses no interest at all. The series of contributions extends from September of 1811 until April of the following year, and appears to have nearly come to a premature and abrupt close in the intermediate July, when an article written by Coleridge in strong opposition to the proposed reinstatement of the Duke of York in the


English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 20/33

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