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- English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 30/33 -

youth above all things craves for, in Coleridge's teaching. Apart from the intrinsic difficulties of the task to which he invites his disciples, it labours under a primary and essential disadvantage of postponing moral to intellectual liberation. Contrive somehow or other to attain to just ideas as to the capacities and limitations of the human consciousness, considered especially in relation to its two important and eternally distinct functions, the Reason and the Understanding: and peace of mind shall in due time be added unto you. That is in effect Coleridge's answer to the inquirer who consults him; and if the distinction between the Reason and the Understanding were as obvious as it is obscure to the average unmetaphysical mind, and of a value as assured for the purpose to which Coleridge applies it as it is uncertain, the answer would nevertheless send many a would-be disciple sorrowful away. His natural impulse is to urge the oracle to tell him whether there be not some one moral attitude which he can wisely and worthily adopt towards the universe, whatever theory he may form of his mental relations to it, or without forming any such theory at all. And it was because Carlyle supplied, or was believed to supply an answer, such as it was, to this universal question, that his train of followers, voluntary and involuntary, permanent and temporary, has been so large.

It appears to me, therefore, on as careful an examination of the point as the data admit of, that Coleridge's position in these latter days of his life has been somewhat mythically exalted by the generation which succeeded him. There are, I think, distinct traces of a Coleridgian legend which has only slowly died out. The actual truth I believe to be that Coleridge's position from 1818 or 1820 till his death, though one of the greatest eminence, was in no sense one of the highest, or even of any considerable influence. Fame and honour, in the fullest measure, were no doubt his: in that matter, indeed, he was only receiving payment of long-delayed arrears. The poetic school with which he was, though not with entire accuracy, associated had outlived its period of contempt and obloquy. In spite of the two quarterlies, the Tory review hostile, its Whig rival coldly silent, the public had recognised the high imaginative merit of _Christabel;_ and who knows but that if the first edition of the _Lyrical Ballads_ had appeared at this date instead of twenty years before, it would have obtained a certain number of readers even among landsmen? [2] But over and above the published works of the poet there were those extraordinary personal characteristics to which the fame of his works of course attracted a far larger share than formerly of popular attention. A remarkable man has more attractive power over the mass of mankind than the most remarkable of books, and it was because the report of Coleridge among those who knew him was more stimulating to public curiosity than even the greatest of his poems, that his celebrity in these latter years attained such proportions. Wordsworth said that though "he had seen many men do wonderful things, Coleridge was the only wonderful man he had ever met," and it was not the doer of wonderful things but the wonderful man that English society in those days went out for to see. Seeing would have been enough, but for a certain number there was hearing too, with the report of it for all; and it is not surprising that fame of the marvellous discourser should, in mere virtue of his extraordinary power of improvised speech, his limitless and untiring mastery of articulate words, have risen to a height to which writers whose only voice is in their pens can never hope to attain.

A reputation of that kind, however, must necessarily perish with its possessor; and Coleridge's posthumous renown has grown, his place in English literature has become more assured, if it has not been even fixed higher, since his death than during his lifetime. This is, in part no doubt, one among the consequences of those very defects of character which so unfortunately limited his actual achievements. He has been credited by faith, as it were, with those famous "unwritten books" of which he assured Charles Lamb that the titles alone would fill a volume, and such "popular reputation," in the strict sense of the word, as he has left behind him, is measured rather by what he was thought capable of doing than by what he did. By serious students, however, the real worth of Coleridge will be differently estimated. For them his peculiar value to English literature is not only undiminished by the incompleteness of his work; it has been, in a certain sense, enhanced thereby. Or, perhaps, it would be more strictly accurate to say that the value could not have existed without the incompleteness. A Coleridge with the faculty of concentration, and the habit of method superadded--a Coleridge capable of becoming possessed by any one form of intellectual energy to the exclusion of all others--might, indeed, have left behind him a more enduring reputation as a philosopher, and possibly (although this, for reasons already stated, is, in my own opinion, extremely doubtful) bequeathed to his countrymen more poetry destined to live; but, unquestionably, he would never have been able to render that precise service to modern thought and literature which, in fact, they owe to him. To have exercised his vivifying and fertilising influence over the minds of others his intellect was bound to be of the dispersive order; it was essential that he should "take all knowledge to be his province," and that that eager, subtle, and penetrative mind should range as freely as it did over subject after subject of human interest;--illuminating each of them in turn with those rays of true critical insight which, amid many bewildering cross-lights and some few downright _ignes fatui,_ flash forth upon us from all Coleridge's work.

Of the personal weaknesses which prevented the just development of the powers, enough, perhaps, has been incidentally said in the course of this volume. But, in summing up his history, I shall not, I trust, be thought to judge the man too harshly in saying that, though the natural disadvantages of wretched health, almost from boyhood upward, must, in common fairness, be admitted in partial excuse for his failure, they do not excuse it altogether. It is difficult not to feel that Coleridge's character, apart altogether from defects of physical constitution, was wanting in manliness of fibre. His willingness to accept assistance at the hands of others is too manifestly displayed even at the earlier and more robust period of his life. It would be a mistake, of course, in dealing with a literary man of Coleridge's era, to apply the same standards as obtain in our own days. Wordsworth, as we have seen, made no scruple to accept the benevolences of the Wedgwoods. Southey, the type of independence and self-help, was, for some years, in receipt of a pension from a private source. But Coleridge, as Miss Meteyard's disclosures have shown, was at all times far more willing to depend upon others, and was far less scrupulous about soliciting their bounty, than was either of his two friends. Had he shared more of the spirit which made Johnson refuse to owe to the benevolence of others what Providence had enabled him to do for himself, it might have been better, no doubt, for the world and for the work which he did therein.

But when we consider what that work was, how varied and how wonderful, it seems idle--nay, it seems ungrateful and ungracious--to speculate too curiously on what further or other benefits this great intellect might have conferred upon mankind, had its possessor been endowed with those qualities of resolution and independence which he lacked. That Coleridge so often only _shows_ the way, and so seldom guides our steps along it to the end, is no just ground of complaint. It would be as unreasonable to complain of a beacon-light that it is not a steam-tug, and forget in the incompleteness of its separate services the glory of their number. It is a more reasonable objection that the light itself is too often liable to obscuration,--that it stands erected upon a rock too often enshrouded by the mists of its encircling sea. But even this objection should not too greatly weigh with us. It would be wiser and better for us to dwell rather upon its splendour and helpfulness in the hours of its efficacy, to think how vast is then the expanse of waters which it illuminates, and its radiance how steady and serene.


1. No one who recollects the equally singular manner in which another most distinguished metaphysician--the late Dean Hansel--was wont to quaver forth his admirably turned and often highly eloquent phrases of philosophical exposition, can fail to be reminded of him by the above description. No two temperaments or histories however could be more dissimilar. The two philosophers resembled each other in nothing save the "om-mject" and "sum-mject" of their studies.

2. The Longmans told Coleridge that the greater part of the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads had been sold to seafaring men, who, having heard of the _Ancient Mariner_, took the volume for a naval song-book.


Adams, Dr.,

_Aeolian Harp,_ circumstances under which it was written, Coleridge's opinion of,

_Aids to Reflection,_ its popularity, its value as a spiritual manual, its inferiority from a literary point of view,

Allan Bank,

Allsop, Mr. Thomas,

_Ancient Mariner,_ how and when first conceived, its uniqueness, Wordsworth's account of its origin and of his suggestions, a sublime "pot-boiler," realistic force of its narrative, its vividness of imagery, its wonderful word-pictures, its evenness of execution, examples of its consummate art, its chief characteristics,


Ball, Sir Alexander,

Beaumont, Lady,


_Biographia Literaria,_ its interest, critical and illustrative, its main value, its analysis of the principles of poetry, its examination of Wordsworth's theory, its contents,

_Blackwood's Magazine,_ Coleridge's contributions to,


English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 30/33

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