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- English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 4/33 -


in determining his career.

5. It is characteristic of the punctilious inaccuracy of Mr. Cottle (_Recollections_, ii. 54) that he should insist that the assumed name was "Cumberbatch, not Comberback," though Coleridge has himself fixed the real name by the jest, "My habits were so little equestrian, that my horse, I doubt not, was of that opinion." This circumstance, though trifling, does not predispose us to accept unquestioningly Mr. Cottle's highly particularised account of Coleridge's experience with his regiment.

6. Miss Mitford, in her _Recollections of a Literary Life_, interestingly records the active share taken by her father in procuring the learned trooper's discharge.

7. "In omni adversitate fortunae, infelicissimum genus est infortunii fuisse felicem."--_Boethius_.

8. Carrlyon's _Early Years and late Reflections_, vol. i. p. 27.

CHAPTER II.

The Bristol Lectures--Marriage--Life at Clevedon--The _Watchman_-- Retirement to Stowey--Introduction to Wordsworth.

[1794-1797.]

The reflections of the worthy Master of Jesus upon the strange reply of the wayward young undergraduate would have been involved in even greater perplexity if he could have looked forward a few months into the future. For after a winter spent in London, and enlivened by those _noctes conoque Deum_ at the "Cat and Salutation," which Lamb has so charmingly recorded, Coleridge returned with Southey to Bristol at the beginning of 1795, and there proceeded to deliver a series of lectures which, whatever their other merits, would certainly not have assisted Dr. Pearce to grasp the distinction between a Pantisocrat and a Jacobin. As a scholar and a man of literary taste he might possibly have admired the rhetorical force of the following outburst, but, considering that the "HE" here gibbeted in capitals was no less a personage than the "heaven-born minister" himself, a plain man might well have wondered what additional force the vocabulary of Jacobinism could have infused into the language of Pantisocracy. After summing up the crimes of the Reign of Terror the lecturer asks: "Who, my brethren, was the cause of this guilt if not HE who supplied the occasion and the motive? Heaven hath bestowed on _that man_ a portion of its ubiquity, and given him an actual presence in the sacraments of hell, wherever administered, in all the bread of bitterness, in all the cups of blood." And in general, indeed, the _Conciones ad Populum_, as Coleridge named these lectures on their subsequent publication, were rather calculated to bewilder any of the youthful lecturer's well- wishers who might be anxious for some means of discriminating his attitude from that of the Hardys, the Horne Tookes, and the Thelwalls of the day. A little warmth of language might no doubt be allowed to a young friend of liberty in discussing legislation which, in the retrospect, has staggered even so staunch a Tory as Sir Archibald Alison; but Coleridge's denunciation of the Pitt and Grenville Acts, in the lecture entitled _The Plot Discovered_, is occasionally startling, even for that day of fierce passions, in the fierceness of its language. It is interesting, however, to note the ever-active play of thought and reasoning amid the very storm and stress of political passion. Coleridge is never for long together a mere declaimer on popular rights and ministerial tyranny, and even this indignant address contains a passage of extremely just and thoughtful analysis of the constituent elements of despotism. Throughout the spring and summer of 1795 Coleridge continued his lectures at Bristol, his head still simmering--though less violently, it may be suspected, every month-- with Pantisocracy, and certainly with all his kindred political and religious enthusiasms unabated.

A study of these crude but vigorous addresses reveals to us, as does the earlier of the early poems, a mind struggling with its half-formed and ever-changing conceptions of the world, and, as is usual at such peculiar phases of an intellectual development, affirming its temporary beliefs with a fervour and vehemence directly proportioned to the recency of their birth. Commenting on the _Conciones ad Populum_ many years afterwards, and invoking them as witnesses to his political consistency as an author, Coleridge remarked that with the exception of "two or three pages involving the doctrine of philosophical necessity and Unitarianism," he saw little or nothing in these outbursts of his youthful zeal to retract, and, with the exception of "some flame- coloured epithets" applied to persons, as to Mr. Pitt and others, "or rather to personifications"--for such, he says, they really were to him--as little to regret.

We now, however, arrive at an event, important in the life of every man, and which influenced that of Coleridge to an extent not the less certainly extraordinary because difficult, if not impossible, to define with exactitude. On the 4th of October 1795 Coleridge was married at St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, to Sarah (or as he preferred to spell it Sara) Fricker, and withdrew for a time from the eager intellectual life of a political lecturer to the contemplative quiet appropriate to the honeymoon of a poet, spent in a sequestered cottage amid beautiful scenery, and within sound of the sea. No wonder that among such surroundings, and with such belongings, the honeymoon should have extended from one month to three, and indeed that Coleridge should have waited till his youthful yearnings for a life of action, and perhaps (though that would have lent itself less gracefully to his poem of farewell to his Clevedon cottage) his increasing sense of the necessity of supplementing the ambrosia of love with the bread and cheese of mortals, compelled him to re-enter the world. No wonder he should have delayed to do so, for it is as easy to perceive in his poems that these were days of unclouded happiness as it is melancholy to reflect by how few others like them his life was destined to be brightened. The _Aeolian Harp_ has no more than the moderate merits, with its full share of the characteristic faults, of his earlier productions; but one cannot help "reading into it" the poet's after-life of disappointment and disillusion--estrangement from the "beloved woman" in whose affection he was then reposing; decay and disappearance of those "flitting phantasies" with which he was then so joyously trifling, and the bitterly ironical scholia which fate was preparing for such lines as

"And tranquil muse upon tranquillity."

One cannot in fact refrain from mentally comparing the _'olian Harp_ of 1795 with the _Dejection_ of 1803, and no one who has thoroughly felt the spirit of both poems can make that comparison without emotion. The former piece is not, as has been said, in a literary sense remarkable. With the exception of the one point of metrical style, to be touched on presently, it has almost no note of poetic distinction save such as belongs of right to any simple record of a mood which itself forms the highest poetry of the average man's life; and one well knows whence came the criticism of that MS. note inscribed by S. T. C. in a copy of the second edition of his early poems, "This I think the most perfect poem I ever wrote. Bad may be the best perhaps." One feels that the annotator might just as well have written, "How perfect was the happiness which this poem recalls!" for this is really all that Coleridge's eulogium, with its touching bias from the hand of memory, amounts to.

It has become time, however, to speak more generally of Coleridge's early poems. The peaceful winter months of 1795-96 were in all likelihood spent in arranging and revising the products of those poetic impulses which had more or less actively stirred within him from his seventeenth year upwards; and in April 1797 there appeared at Bristol a volume of some fifty pieces entitled _Poems on Various Subjects, by S. T. Coleridge, late of Jesus College Cambridge_. It was published by his friend Cottle, who, in a mixture of the generous with the speculative instinct, had given him thirty guineas for the copyright. Its contents are of a miscellaneous kind, consisting partly of rhymed irregular odes, partly of a collection of _Sonnets on Eminent Characters_, and partly (and principally) of a blank verse poem of several hundred lines, then, and indeed for years afterwards, regarded by many of the poet's admirers as his masterpiece--the _Religious Musings_. [1]

To the second edition of these poems, which was published in the following year, Coleridge, at all times a candid critic (to the limited extent to which it is possible even for the finest judges to be so) of his own works, prefixed a preface, wherein he remarks that his poems have been "rightly charged with a profusion of double epithets and a general turgidness," and adds that he has "pruned the double epithets with no sparing hand," and used his best efforts to tame the swell and glitter both of thought and diction. "The latter fault, however, had," he continues, "so insinuated itself into my _Religious Musings_ with such intricacy of union that sometimes I have omitted to disentangle the weed from fear of snapping the flower." This is plain- spoken criticism, but I do not think that any reader who is competent to pronounce judgment on the point will be inclined to deprecate its severity. Nay, in order to get done with fault-finding as soon as possible, it must perhaps be added that the admitted turgidness of the poems is often something more than a mere defect of style, and that the verse is turgid because the feeling which it expresses is exaggerated. The "youthful bard unknown to fame" who, in the _Songs of the Pixies_, is made to "heave the gentle misery of a sigh," is only doing a natural thing described in ludicrously and unnaturally stilted terms; but the young admirer of the _Robbers_, who informs Schiller that if he were to meet him in the evening wandering in his loftier mood "beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood," he would "gaze upon him awhile in mute awe" and then "weep aloud in a wild ecstasy," endangers the reader's gravity not so much by extravagance of diction as by over-effusiveness of sentiment. The former of these two offences differs from the latter by the difference between "fustian" and "gush." And there is, in fact, more frequent exception to be taken to the character of the thought in these poems than to that of the style. The remarkable gift of eloquence, which seems to have belonged to Coleridge from boyhood, tended naturally to aggravate that very common fault of young poets whose faculty of expression has outstripped the growth of their intellectual and emotional experiences--the fault of wordiness. Page after page of the poems of 1796 is filled with what one cannot, on the most favourable terms, rank higher than rhetorical commonplace; stanza after stanza falls pleasantly upon the ear without suggesting any image sufficiently striking to arrest the eye of the imagination, or awakening any thought sufficiently novel to lay hold upon the mind. The _Aeolian Harp_ has been already referred to as a pleasing poem, and reading it, as we must, in constant recollection of the circumstances in which it was written, it unquestionably is so. But in none of the descriptions either of external objects or of internal feeling which are to be found in this and its companion piece, the _Reflections on having left a Place of Retirement_, is there anything which can fairly be said to elevate them above the level of graceful verse. It is only in the region of the fantastic and supernatural that Coleridge's imagination, as he was destined to show by a far more splendid example two years afterwards, seems to acquire true poetic distinction. It is in the _Songs of the Pixies_ that the young man "heaves the gentle misery of a sigh," and the sympathetic


English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 4/33

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