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- English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 5/33 -


interest of the reader of today is chilled by the too frequent intrusion of certain abstract ladies, each preceded by her capital letter and attended by her "adjective-in-waiting;" but, after all deductions for the conventionalisms of "white-robed Purity," "meek-eyed Pity," "graceful Ease," etc., one cannot but feel that the _Songs of the Pixies_ was the offspring not of a mere abundant and picturesque vocabulary but of a true poetic fancy. It is worth far more as an earnest of future achievement than the very unequal _Monody on the Death of Chatterton_ (for which indeed we ought to make special allowance, as having been commenced in the author's eighteenth year), and certainly than anything which could be quoted from the _Effusions_, as Coleridge, unwilling to challenge comparison with the divine Bowles, had chosen to describe his sonnets. It must be honestly said indeed that these are, a very few excepted, among the least satisfactory productions of any period of his poetic career. The Coleridgian sonnet is not only imperfect in form and in marked contrast in the frequent bathos of its close to the steady swell and climax of Wordsworth, but, in by far the majority of instances in this volume, it is wanting in internal weight. The "single pebble" of thought which a sonnet should enclose is not only not neatly wrapped up in its envelope of words, but it is very often not heavy enough to carry itself and its covering to the mark. When it is so, its weight, as in the sonnet to Pitt, is too frequently only another word for an ephemeral violence of political feeling which, whether displayed on one side or the other, cannot be expected to reproduce its effect in the minds of comparatively passionless posterity. Extravagances, too, abound, as when in _Kosciusko_ Freedom is made to look as if, in a fit of "wilfulness and sick despair," she had drained a mystic urn containing all the tears that had ever found "fit channel on a Patriot's furrowed cheek." The main difficulty of the metre, too--that of avoiding forced rhymes--is rarely surmounted. Even in the three fine lines in the _Burke_---

"Thee stormy Pity and the cherished lure Of Pomp and proud precipitance of soul, Wildered with meteor fires"--

we cannot help feeling that "lure" is extremely harsh, while the weakness of the two concluding lines of the sonnet supplies a typical example of the disappointment which these "effusions" so often prepare for their readers.

Enough, however, has been said of the faults of these early poems; it remains to consider their merits, foremost among which, as might be expected, is the wealth and splendour of their diction in these passages, in which such display is all that is needed for the literary ends of the moment. Over all that wide region of literature, in which force and fervour of utterance, depth and sincerity of feeling avail, without the nameless magic of poetry in the higher sense of the word, to achieve the objects of the writer and to satisfy the mind of the reader, Coleridge ranges with a free and sure footstep. It is no disparagement to his _Religious Musings_ to say that it is to this class of literature that it belongs. Having said this, however, it must be added that poetry of the second order has seldom risen to higher heights of power. The faults already admitted disfigure it here and there. We have "moon blasted Madness when he yells at midnight;" we read of "eye-starting wretches and rapture-trembling seraphim," and the really striking image of Ruin, the "old hag, unconquerable, huge, Creation's eyeless drudge," is marred by making her "nurse" an "impatient earthquake." But there is that in Coleridge's aspirations and apostrophes to the Deity which impresses one even more profoundly than the mere magnificence, remarkable as it is, of their rhetorical clothing. They are touched with so penetrating a sincerity; they are so obviously the outpourings of an awe-struck heart. Indeed, there is nothing more remarkable at this stage of Coleridge's poetic development than the instant elevation which his verse assumes whenever he passes to Divine things. At once it seems to take on a Miltonic majesty of diction and a Miltonic stateliness of rhythm. The tender but low-lying domestic sentiment of the _Aeolian Harp_ is in a moment informed by it with the dignity which marks that poem's close. Apart too from its literary merits, the biographical interest of _Religious Musings_ is very considerable. "Written," as its title declares, but in reality, as its length would suggest and as Mr. Cottle in fact tells us, only _completed_, "on the Christmas eve of 1794," it gives expression to the tumultuous emotions by which Coleridge's mind was agitated at this its period of highest political excitement. His revolutionary enthusiasm was now at its hottest, his belief in the infant French Republic at its fullest, his wrath against the "coalesced kings" at its fiercest, his contempt for their religious pretence at its bitterest. "Thee to defend," he cries,

"Thee to defend, dear Saviour of mankind! Thee, Lamb of God! Thee, blameless Prince of Peace! From all sides rush the thirsty brood of war-- Austria, and that foul Woman of the North, The lustful murderess of her wedded lord, And he, connatural mind! whom (in their songs, So bards of elder time had haply feigned) Some Fury fondled in her hate to man, Bidding her serpent hair in tortuous fold Lick his young face, and at his mouth imbreathe Horrible sympathy!"

This is vigorous poetic invective; and the effect of such outbursts is heightened by the rapid subsidence of the passion that inspires them and the quick advent of a calmer mood. We have hardly turned the page ere denunciations of Catherine and Frederick William give place to prayerful invocations of the Supreme Being, which are in their turn the prelude of a long and beautiful contemplative passage: "In the prim'val age, a dateless while," etc., on the pastoral origin of human society. It is as though some sweet and solemn strain of organ music had succeeded to the blast of war-bugles and the roll of drums. In the _Ode to the Departing Year_, written in the last days of 1796, with its "prophecy of curses though I pray fervently for blessings" upon the poet's native country, the mood is more uniform in its gloom; and it lacks something, therefore, of those peculiar qualities which make the _Religious Musings_ one perhaps of the most pleasing of all Coleridge's earlier productions. But it shares with the poems shortly to be noticed what may be called the autobiographic charm. The fresh natural emotion of a young and brilliant mind is eternally interesting, and Coleridge's youthful Muse, with a frankness of self- disclosure which is not the less winning because at times it provokes a smile, confides to us even the history of her most temporary moods. It is, for instance, at once amusing and captivating to read in the latest edition of the poems, as a footnote to the lines--

"Not yet enslaved, not wholly vile, O Albion! O my mother isle!"

the words--

"O doomed to fall, enslaved and vile--1796."

Yes; in 1796 and till the end of 1797 the poet's native country _was_ in his opinion all these dreadful things, but, directly the mood changes, the verse alters, and to the advantage, one cannot but think, of the beautiful and often-quoted close of the passage--

"And Ocean mid his uproar wild Speaks safety to his island child. Hence for many a fearless age Has social Quiet loved thy shore, Nor ever proud invader's rage, Or sacked thy towers or stained thy fields with gore."

And whether we view him in his earlier or his later mood there is a certain strange dignity of utterance, a singular confidence in his own poetic mission, which forbids us to smile at this prophet of four-and- twenty who could thus conclude his menacing vaticinations:--

"Away, my soul, away! I, unpartaking of the evil thing, With daily prayer and daily toil Soliciting for food my scanty soil, Have wailed my country with a loud lament. Now I recentre my immortal mind In the deep Sabbath of meek self-content, Cleansed from the vaporous passions which bedim God's image, sister of the Seraphim."

If ever the consciousness of great powers and the assurance of a great future inspired a youth with perfect and on the whole well-warranted fearlessness of ridicule it has surely done so here.

Poetry alone, however, formed no sufficient outlet for Coleridge's still fresh political enthusiasm--an enthusiasm which now became too importunate to let him rest in his quiet Clevedon cottage. Was it right, he cries in his lines of leave-taking to his home, that he should dream away the entrusted hours "while his unnumbered brethren toiled and bled"? The propaganda of Liberty was to be pushed forward; the principles of Unitarianism, to which Coleridge had become a convert at Cambridge, were to be preached. Is it too prosaic to add that what poor Henri Murger calls the "chasse aux piece de cent sous" was in all probability demanding peremptorily to be resumed?

Anyhow it so fell out that in the spring of the year 1796 Coleridge took his first singular plunge into the unquiet waters of journalism, instigated thereto by "sundry philanthropists and anti-polemists," whose names he does not record, but among whom we may conjecturally place Mr. Thomas Poole of Stowey, with whom he had formed what was destined to be one of the longest and closest friendships of his life. Which of the two parties--the advisers or the advised--was responsible for the general plan of this periodical and for the arrangements for its publication is unknown; but one of these last-mentioned details is enough to indicate that there could have been no "business head" among them. Considering that the motto of the _Watchman_ declared the object of its issue to be that "all might know the truth, and that the truth might make them free," it is to be presumed that the promoters of the scheme were not unwilling to secure as many subscribers as possible for their sheet of "thirty-two pages, large octavo, closely printed, price only fourpence." In order, however, to exempt it from the stamp- tax, and with the much less practical object of making it "contribute as little as possible to the supposed guilt of a war against freedom," it was to be published on every eighth day, so that the week-day of its appearance would of course vary with each successive week--an arrangement as ingeniously calculated to irritate and alienate its public as any perhaps that the wit of man could have devised. So, however, it was to be, and accordingly with "a naming prospectus, 'Knowledge is Power,' to cry the state of the political atmosphere," Coleridge set off on a tour to the north, from Bristol to Sheffield, for the purpose of procuring customers, preaching Unitarian sermons by the way in most of the great towns, "as an hireless volunteer in a blue coat and white waistcoat that not a rag of the woman of Babylon might be seen on me." How he sped upon his mission is related by him with infinite humour in the _Biographia Literaria_. He opened the campaign at Birmingham upon a Calvinist tallow-chandler, who, after listening to half an hour's harangue, extending from "the captivity of the nations" to "the near approach of the millennium," and winding up with a quotation describing the latter "glorious state" out of the _Religious Musings_, inquired what might be the cost of the new


English Men of Letters: Coleridge - 5/33

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