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Outlines of English and American Literature
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
by Long, William J.

The tragedy Remorse, which Coleridge wrote, is as nothing compared with the tragedy of his own life. He was a man of superb natural gifts, of vast literary culture, to whose genius the writers of that age--Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Lamb, De Quincey, Shelley, Landor, Southey--nearly all bear witness. He might well have been a great poet, or critic, or philosopher, or teacher; but he lacked the will power to direct his gifts to any definite end. His irresolution became pitiful weakness when he began to indulge in the drug habit, which soon made a slave of him. Thereafter he impressed all who met him with a sense of loss and inexpressible sorrow.

Life of Coleridge

Coleridge began to read at three years of age; at five he had gone through the Bible and the Arabian Nights; at thirty he was perhaps the most widely read man of his generation in the fields of literature and philosophy. He was a student in a famous charity school in London when he met Charles Lamb, who records his memories of the boy and the place in his charming essay of "Christ's Hospital." At college he was one of a band of enthusiasts inspired by the French Revolution, and with Southey he formed a plan to establish in America a world-reforming Pantisocracy, or communistic settlement, where all should be brothers and equals, and where a little manual work was to be tempered by much play, poetry and culture. Europeans had queer ideas of America in those days. This beautiful plan failed, because the reformers did not have money enough to cross the ocean and stake out their Paradise.

The next important association of Coleridge was with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, in Somerset, where the three friends planned and published the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. In this work Wordsworth attempted to portray the charm of common things, and Coleridge to give reality to a world of dreams and fantasies. Witness the two most original poems in the book, "Tintern Abbey" and "The Ancient Mariner."

During the latter part of his life Coleridge won fame by his lectures on English poetry and German philosophy, and still greater fame by his conversations,--brilliant, heaven-scaling monologues, which brought together a company of young enthusiasts. And presently these disciples of Coleridge were spreading abroad a new idealistic philosophy, which crossed the ocean, was welcomed by Emerson and a host of young writers or reformers, and appeared in American literature as Transcendentalism.

Stories of Coleridge

Others who heard the conversations were impressed in a somewhat different way. Keats met Coleridge on the road, one day, and listened dumbfounded to an ecstatic discourse on poetry, nightingales, the origin of sensation, dreams (four kinds), consciousness, creeds, ghost stories,--"he broached a thousand matters" while the poets were walking a space of two miles.

Walter Scott, meeting Coleridge at a dinner, listened with his head in a whirl to a monologue on fairies, the classics, ancient mysteries, visions, ecstasies, the psychology of poetry, the poetry of metaphysics. "Zounds!" says Scott, "I was never so bethumped with words."

Charles Lamb, hurrying to his work, encountered Coleridge and was drawn aside to a quiet garden. There the poet took Lamb by a button of his coat, closed his eyes, and began to discourse, his right hand waving to the rhythm of the flowing words. No sooner was Coleridge well started than Lamb slyly took out his penknife, cut off the button, and escaped unobserved. Some hours later, as he passed the garden on his return, Lamb heard a voice speaking most musically; he turned aside in wonder, and there stood Coleridge, his eyes closed, his left hand holding the button, his right hand waving, "still talking like an angel."

Such are the stories, true or apocryphal, of Coleridge's conversations. Their bewildering quality appears, somewhat dimmed, in his prose works, which have been finely compared with the flight of an eagle on set wings, sweeping in wide circles, balancing, soaring, mounting on the winds. But we must note this difference: that the eagle keeps his keen eye on the distant earth, and always knows just where he is; while Coleridge sees only the wonders of Cloudland, and appears to be hopelessly lost.

His Prose and Poetry

The chief prose works of Coleridge are his Biographia Literaria (a brilliant patchwork of poetry and metaphysics), Aids to Reflection, Letters and Table Talk (the most readable of his works), and Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare. These all contain fine gold, but the treasure is for those doughty miners the critics rather than for readers who go to literature for recreation. Among the best of his miscellaneous poems (and Coleridge at his best has few superiors) are "Youth and Age," "Love Poems," "Hymn before Sunrise," "Ode to the Departing Year," and the pathetic "Ode to Dejection," which is a reflection of the poet's saddened but ever hopeful life.

Two other poems, highly recommended by most critics, are the fragments "Kubla Khan" and "Christabel"; but in dealing with these the reader may do well to form his own judgment. Both fragments contain beautiful lines, but as a whole they are wandering, disjointed, inconsequent,--mere sketches, they seem, of some weird dream of mystery or terror which Coleridge is trying in vain to remember.

The Ancient Mariner

The most popular of Coleridge's works is his imperishable "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a wildly improbable poem of icebound or tropic seas, of thirst-killed sailors, of a phantom ship sailed by a crew of ghosts,--all portrayed in the vivid, picturesque style of the old ballad. When the "Mariner" first appeared it was dismissed as a cock-and-bull story; yet somehow readers went back to it, again and again, as if fascinated. It was passed on to the next generation; and still we read it, and pass it on. For this grotesque tale differs from all others of its kind in that its lines have been quoted for over a hundred years as a reflection of some profound human experience. That is the genius of the work: it takes the most fantastic illusions and makes them appear as real as any sober journey recorded in a sailor's log book. [Footnote: In connection with the "Ancient Mariner" one should read the legends of "The Flying Dutchman" and "The Wandering Jew." Poe's story "A Manuscript Found in a Bottle" is based on these legends and on Coleridge's poem.]

At the present time our enjoyment of the "Mariner" is somewhat hampered by the critical commentaries which have fastened upon the poem, like barnacles on an old ship. It has been studied as a type of the romantic ballad, as a moral lesson, as a tract against cruelty to animals, as a model of college English. But that is no way to abuse a poet's fancy! To appreciate the "Mariner" as the author intended, one should carry it off to the hammock or orchard; there to have freedom of soul to enjoy a well-spun yarn, a gorgeous flight of imagination, a poem which illustrates Coleridge's definition of poetry as "the bloom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, thoughts, emotions, language." It broadens one's sympathy, as well as one's horizon, to accompany this ancient sailor through scenes of terror and desolation:

  O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
  Alone on a wide, wide sea:
  So lonely 't was, that God himself
  Scarce seemed there to be.

In the midst of such scenes come blessed memories of a real world, of the beauty of unappreciated things, such as the "sweet jargoning" of birds:

  And now 'twas like all instruments,
  Now like a lonely flute;
  And now it is an angel's song,
  That makes the heavens be mute.

  It ceased; yet still the sails made on
  A pleasant noise till noon,
  A noise like of a hidden brook
  In the leafy month of June,
  That to the sleeping woods all night
  Singeth a quiet tune.

Whoever is not satisfied with that for its own sake, without moral or analysis, has missed the chief interest of all good poetry.


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