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- English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 3/33 -


or other of restless disquietude, Coleridge suddenly quitted Cambridge and came up, very slenderly provided with money, to London, where, after a few days' sojourn, he was compelled by pressure of actual need to enlist, under the name of Silas Titus Comberback (S. T. C.), [5] as a private in the 15th Light Dragoons. It may seem strange to say so, but it strikes one as quite conceivable that the world might have been a gainer if fate had kept Coleridge a little longer in the ranks than the four months of his actual service. As it was, however, his military experiences, unlike those of Gibbon, were of no subsequent advantage to him. He was, as he tells us, an execrable rider, a negligent groom of his horse, and, generally, a slack and slovenly trooper; but before drill and discipline had had time to make a smart soldier of him, he chanced to attract the attention of his captain by having written a Latin quotation on the white wall of the stables at Reading. This officer, who it seems was either able to translate the ejaculation, "Eheu! quam infortunii miserrimum est fuisse felicem," [7] or, at any rate, to recognise the language it was written in, interested himself forthwith on behalf of his scholarly recruit. [6] Coleridge's discharge was obtained at Hounslow on April 10, 1794, and he returned to Cambridge.

The year was destined to be eventful for him in more ways than one. In June he went to Oxford to pay a visit to an old schoolfellow, where an accidental introduction to Robert Southey, then an undergraduate of Balliol, laid the foundation of a friendship destined largely to influence their future lives. In the course of the following August he came to Bristol, where he was met by Southey, and by him introduced to Robert Lovell, through whom and Southey he made the acquaintance of two persons of considerable, if not exactly equal, importance to any young author--his first publisher and his future wife. Robert Lovell already knew Mr. Joseph Cottle, brother of Amos Cottle (Byron's "O! Amos Cottle! Phoebus! what a name"), and himself a poet of some pretensions; and he had married Mary Fricker, one of whose sisters, Edith, was already engaged to Southey; while another, Sara, was afterwards to become Mrs. Coleridge.

As the marriage turned out on the whole an unhappy one, the present may be a convenient moment for considering how far its future character was determined by previously existing and unalterable conditions, and how far it may be regarded as the result of subsequent events. De Quincey, whose acute and in many respects most valuable monograph on the poet touches its point of least trustworthiness in matters of this kind, declares roundly, and on the alleged authority of Coleridge himself, that the very primary and essential prerequisite of happiness was wanting to the union. Coleridge, he says, assured him that his marriage was "not his own deliberate act, but was in a manner forced upon his sense of honour by the scrupulous Southey, who insisted that he had gone too far in his attentions to Miss Fricker for any honourable retreat." On the other hand, he adds, "a neutral spectator of the parties protested to me that if ever in his life he had seen a man under deep fascination, and what he would have called desperately in love, Coleridge, in relation to Miss F., was that man." One need not, I think, feel much hesitation in preferring this "neutral spectator's" statement to that of the discontented husband, made several years after the mutual estrangement of the couple, and with no great propriety perhaps, to a new acquaintance. There is abundant evidence in his own poems alone that at the time of, and for at least two or three years subsequently to, his marriage Coleridge's feeling towards his wife was one of profound and indeed of ardent attachment. It is of course quite possible that the passion of so variable, impulsive, and irresolute a temperament as his may have had its hot and cold fits, and that during one of the latter phases Southey may have imagined that his friend needed some such remonstrance as that referred to. But this is not nearly enough to support the assertion that Coleridge's marriage was "in a manner forced upon his sense of honour," and was not his own deliberate act. It was as deliberate as any of his other acts during the years 1794 and 1795,--that is to say, it was as wholly inspired by the enthusiasm of the moment, and as utterly ungoverned by anything in the nature of calculation on the possibilities of the future. He fell in love with Sara Fricker as he fell in love with the French Revolution and with the scheme of "Pantisocracy," and it is indeed extremely probable that the emotions of the lover and the socialist may have subtly acted and reacted upon each other. The Pantisocratic scheme was essentially based at its outset upon a union of kindred souls, for it was clearly necessary of course that each male member of the little community to be founded on the banks of the Susquehanna should take with him a wife. Southey and Lovell had theirs in the persons of two sisters; they were his friends and fellow-workers in the scheme; and they had a sympathetic sister-in-law disengaged. Fate therefore seemed to designate her for Coleridge and with the personal attraction which she no doubt exerted over him there may well have mingled a dash of that mysterious passion for symmetry which prompts a man to "complete the set." After all, too, it must be remembered that, though Mrs. Coleridge did not permanently retain her hold upon her husband's affections, she got considerably the better of those who shared them with her. Coleridge found out the objections to Pantisocracy in a very short space of time, and a decided coolness had sprung up between him and Madame la Revolution before another two years had passed.

The whole history indeed of this latter _liaison_ is most remarkable, and no one, it seems to me, can hope to form an adequate conception of Coleridge's essential instability of character without bestowing somewhat closer attention upon this passage in his intellectual development than it usually receives. It is not uncommon to see the cases of Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge lumped together indiscriminately, as interequivalent illustrations of the way in which the young and generous minds of that era were first fascinated and then repelled by the French Revolution. As a matter of fact, however, the last of the three cases differed in certain very important respects from the two former. Coleridge not only took the "frenzy-fever" in a more violent form than either Wordsworth or Southey, and uttered wilder things in his delirium than they, but the paroxysm was much shorter, the _immediate_ reaction more violent in its effects and brought about by slighter causes in his case than in theirs. This will appear more clearly when we come to contrast the poems of 1794 and 1795 with those of 1797. For the present it must suffice to say that while the history of Coleridge's relations to the French Revolution is intellectually more interesting than that of Wordsworth's and Southey's, it plainly indicates, even in that early period of the three lives, a mind far more at the mercy of essentially transitory sentiment than belonged to either of the others, and far less disposed than theirs to review the aspirations of the moment by the steady light of the practical judgment.

This, however, is anticipating matters. We are still in the summer of 1794, and we left Coleridge at Bristol with Southey, Lovell, and the Miss Frickers. To this year belongs that remarkable experiment in playwriting at high pressure, _The Fall of Robespierre_. It originated, we learn from Southey, in "a sportive conversation at poor Lovell's," when each of the three friends agreed to produce one act of a tragedy, on the subject indicated in the above title, by the following evening. Coleridge was to write the first, Southey the second, and Lovell the third. Southey and Lovell appeared the next day with their acts complete, Coleridge, characteristically, with only a part of his. Lovell's, however, was found not to be in keeping with the other two, so Southey supplied the third as well as the second, by which time Coleridge had completed the first. The tragedy was afterwards published entire, and is usually included in complete editions of Coleridge's poetical works. It is an extremely immature production, abounding in such coquettings (if nothing more serious) with bathos as

"Now, Aloof thou standest from the tottering pillar, And like a frighted child behind its mother, Hidest thy pale face in the skirts of Mercy."

and

"Liberty, condensed awhile, is bursting To scatter the arch-chemist in the explosion."

Coleridge also contributed to Southey's _Joan of Arc_ certain lines of which, many years afterwards, he wrote in this humorously exaggerated but by no means wholly unjust tone of censure:--"I was really astonished (1) at the schoolboy, wretched, allegoric machinery; (2) at the transmogrification of the fanatic Virago into a modern novel-pawing proselyte of the Age of Reason--a Tom Paine in petticoats; (3) at the utter want of all rhythm in the verse, the monotony and dead plumb-down of the pauses, and at the absence of all bone, muscle, and sinew in the single lines."

In September Coleridge returned to Cambridge, to keep what turned out to be his last term at Jesus. We may fairly suppose that he had already made up his mind to bid adieu to the Alma Mater whose bosom he was about to quit for that of a more venerable and, as he then believed, a gentler mother on the banks of the Susquehanna; but it is not impossible that in any case his departure might have been expedited by the remonstrances of college authority. Dr. Pearce, Master of Jesus, and afterwards Dean of Ely, did all he could, records a friend of a somewhat later date, "to keep him within bounds; but his repeated efforts to reclaim him were to no purpose, and upon one occasion, after a long discussion on the visionary and ruinous tendency of his later schemes, Coleridge cut short the argument by bluntly assuring him, his friend and master, that he mistook the matter altogether. He was neither Jacobin, [8] he said, nor Democrat, but a Pantisocrat." And, leaving the good doctor to digest this new and strange epithet, Coleridge bade farewell to his college and his university, and went forth into that world with which he was to wage so painful and variable a struggle.

FOOTNOTES

1. He tells us in the _Biographia Literaria_ that he had translated the eight hymns of Synesius from the Greek into English anacreontics "before his fifteenth year." It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he had more scholarship in 1782 than most boys of ten years.

2. Footnote: Gillman, pp. 22, 23.

3. Of this Coleridge afterwards remarked with justice that its "ideas were better than the language or metre in which they were conveyed." Porson, with little magnanimity, as De Quincey complains, was severe upon its Greek, but its main conception--an appeal to Death to come, a welcome deliverer to the slaves, and to bear them to shores where "they may tell their beloved ones what horrors they, being men, had endured from men"--is moving and effective. De Quincey, however, was undoubtedly right in his opinion that Coleridge's Greek scholarship was not of the exact order. No exact scholar could, for instance, have died in the faith (as Coleridge did) that [Greek Text: epsilon-sigma-tau-eta- sigma-epsilon] (S. T. C.) means "he stood," and not "he placed."

4. Adding "that which gained the prize was contemptible"--an expression of opinion hardly in accordance with Le Grice's statement ("Recollections" in _Gentleman's Magazine_ for 1836) that "no one was more convinced of the propriety of the decision than Coleridge himself." Mr. Le Grice, however, bears valuable testimony to Coleridge's disappointment, though I think he exaggerates its influence


English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 3/33

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