1902 Encyclopedia > Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
English poet and philosopher

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (1772-1834), one of the most remarkable of English poets and thinkers, was born, on the 21st of October 1772, at his father’s vicarage of Ottery St Mary’s, Devonshire. His father was a man of some mark. He was known for his great scholarship, simplicity of character, and affectionate interest in the pupils of the grammar school, where he reigned until his promotion to the vicarage of the parish. He had married twice. The poet was the youngest child of his second wife, Anne Bowden, a woman of great good sense, and anxiously ambitious for the success of her sons. On the death of his father, a presentation to Christ’s Hospital—acceptable in a family of ten—was procured for Coleridge by Judge Buller, an old pupil of his father’s. He had already begun to give evidence of a powerful imagination, and he had described in a latter to his valued friend, Mr Poole, the Pernicious effect which the admiration of an uncle and his circle of friends had upon him at this period. For eight years he continued at Christ’s Hospital. Of these school-days Charles Lamb has given delightful glimpses in the Essays of Elia. The head master, Bowyer, though a severe disciplinarian, was on the whole respected by his pupils. Middleton, afterwards known as a Greek scholar, and bishop of Calcutta, reported Coleridge to Bowyer as a boy who read Virgil of amusement, and from that time Bowyer began to notice him, and encouraged his reading. Some compositions in English poetry, written at sixteen, and not without a touch of genius, give evidence of the influence which Bowles, whose poems, now forgotten, were then in vogue, had over his mind at this time. Before he left school his constitutional delicacy of frame, increased by imprudent bathing in the New River, began to give him serious discomfort.

In February 1791, he was entered at Jesus College, Cambridge. A school-fellow who followed him to the university has described in glowing terms evenings in his rooms, "when Aeschylus, and Plato, and Thucydides were pushed aside, with a pile of lexicons and the like, to discuss the pamphlets of the day. Even and anon a pamphlet issued from the pen of Burke. There was no need of having the book before us,—Coleridge had read it in the morning, and in the evening he would repeat whole pages verbatim."

Frend, a fellow of Jesus, accused of sedition and Unitarianism, was at this time tried and expelled from Cambridge. Coleridge had imbibed his sentiments, and joined the ranks of his partisans. He grew discontented with university life, and, pressed by debt, in a moment of spleen enlisted as a soldier. One of the officers of the dragon regiment, finding a Latin sentence inscribed on a wall, discovered the condition of the very awkward recruit. Shortly afterwards a Cambridge friend recognized him, and informed some members of his family, who with difficulty procured his discharge. He returned for a short time to Cambridge, but quitted the university without a degree in 1794. In the same year he visited Oxford, and made the acquaintance of Southey, who continued through life, in spite of Coleridge’s many misunderstandings, his firm friend and most devoted admirer. The French Revolution had stirred the mind of Southey to its depths. He received with rapture his new friend’s scheme of Pantisocracy. On the banks of Susquehanna was to be founded a brotherly community, where selfishness was to be extinguished, and the virtues were to reign supreme. No founds were forthcoming, and in 1795, to the chagrin of Coleridge, the scheme was dropped. In October of the same year. Coleridge was married to Sarah Ficker, and took up his residence at Clevedon on the Bristol Channel. A few weeks afterwards Southey married a sister of Mrs Coleridge, and on the same day quitted England for Portugal.

The cares of matrimony induced Coleridge to commerce lectures. The Bristol public did not encourage his efforts on politics and religion. Coleridge embodied these in his first prose publication, Conciones ad Popukum. The book contained much invective against Pitt, and in after life he declared that with this exception, and a few pages involving philosophical tenets which he afterwards rejected, there was, little or nothing he desired to retract. In the course of a summer excursion at this period, he met for the first time the brother poet wuth whose name his own will be fore ever associated. Wordsmith and his sister had established themselves at Racedown in Dorseshire,—a retired spot,—and it was here the friends first met. There are few things in literary history more remarkable than this meeting. The gifted Dorothy Wordsworth described Coleridge as "thin and pale, the lower part of the face not good, wide mouth, thick lips, not very good teeth, longish loose, half-curling, rough, black hair,"—but all was forgotten in the magic charm of his utterance. Wordsworth, who declared, "The only wonderful man I ever knew was Coleridge," seems at once to have desired to see more of his new friend. He and his sister soon removed to Coleridge’s neighbourhood and in the most delightful and unrestrained intercourse the friends spent many happy days. It was the delight of each one to communicate to the other the production of their minds, and the creative faculty of both poets was now at its bests. One evening, on the Quantock Hills, The Ancient Mariner first took shape. Coleridge was anxious to embody a dream of a friend, and the suggestion of the shooting of the albatross came from Wordsworth. A joint volume was planned. The poetry of common life was to be the work of Wordsworth, while Coleridge was to indulge in romance. From the sprang the Lyrical Ballads, and after much cogitation the book was published by the amiable but gossiping bookseller at Bristol Cottle, to whose reminiscences, often indulging too much in detail, we owe the account of this remarkable time. Coleridge projected a periodical called The Watchman, and undertook a journey, well described in the Biographia Literaria, to enlist subscribers. The Watchman had a brief life of two months, and at this time, in the year 1796, the Juvenile Poems, fro which Cottle, always ready to help his literary friends, gave thirty guineas appeared. The volume met with success, but at this time Coleridge began to think of becoming a Unitarian preacher, and abandoning literature for ever. Haxlitt has recorded his very favourable impression of a remarkable sermon delivered at Birmingham, but there are other accounts of Coleridge’s preaching not so enthusiastic. In 1798 an annuity, granted him by the brothers Wedgwood, led him to abandon his scheme of life. For many years he had desired to see the Continent, and in September the same year—the year in which the Lyrical Ballads appeared—in company with Wordsworth and his sister, he left England for Hamburg.

A new period in Coleridge’s life now began. He soon left the Wordsworth to attend lectures at Göttingen. A great intellectual movement had begun in Germany. Coleridge was soon in the full whirl of excitement. He learnt much from Blumenbach and Eichborn, and took interest in all that was going on around him. During his stay of fourteen months in Germany, he made himself master of the language to such purpose that the translation of Wallenstein—his first piece of literary work after his return to England—was actually accomplished in six weeks. It was published in 1800, and, although it failed to make any impression on the general public, it became at once prized by Scott and others as it deserved. In several passages Coleridge has expanded and paraphrased the thought and expression of the original, but few, ever amongst the greatest sticklers for accuracy, will be inclined to quarrel with the departure of the translator. It is matter for regret that a request to Coleridge that he should undertake to translate Faust never received serious attention from him. During the first two years of his century Coleridge wrote many papers for the Morning Post. He has vehemently opposed Pitt’s policy, but a change came over the spirit of his mind, and he found himself separated from Fox on the question of a struggle with Napoleon. Much has been written of this political attitude, but there is no real reason to doubt his own account of the matter. Like the first Lord Minto, Mr Windham, and many other Whigs, he felt that all questions of domestic policy must at a time of European peril be postponed. From this time, however, his value for the ordered liberty of constitutional government increased; and though never exactly to be found among the ranks of old-fashioned Constitutionalists, during the remainder of his life he kept steadily in view the principles which received their full exposition in his well-known work on Church and State. In the year 1801 Coleridge left London for the Lakes. His home was for a time with Southey. A temporary estrangement had entirely been forgotten, and Southey, it should be said, for many years extended to Coleridge’s wife and family the shelter and care of true friendship.

For fifteen years the record of Coleridge’s life is a miserable history. He sank under the dominion of opium. The Ode of Dejection and the poem of Youth and Age are sad evidences of the utter prostration of spirit, which was his terrible penalty for many years. Few things are so sad to read as the letters in which he details the consequences of his transgression. He was occasionally seen in London during the first years of this century, and wherever appeared he was the delight of admiring circles. A visit to Malta in 1804, when for a short time he acted as secretary to the governor, and a brief stay at Rome in the following year, were the chief events of what may be called the opium period. In 1809 he published The Friend, and during that and the two following years he lectured on Shakespeare and education. The tragedy of Remorse was produced in 1813, and met with considerable success. Three years after this, the evil habit against which he had struggled bravely but ineffectually, determined him to enter the family of Mr Gillman, who lived at Highfate. The letter in which he disclosed his misery to this kind and thoughtful man gives a real insight into his character. Under kind and judicious treatment the hour of mastery at last arrived. The shore was reached, but the vessel had been miserably shattered in its passage through the rocks. He hardly, for the rest of his life, ever left his home at Highgate. During his residence there, Christabel, written many years before, and known to a favoured few, was first published. He read widely and wisely, in poetry, philosophy, and divinity. In 1816 and the following year, he have his Lay Sermons to the world. The Biographia Literaria and a revised edition of The Friend soon followd. Seven years afterwards his maturest and best prose work—The Aids to Reflection—first appeared. His last publication, in 1830, was the work on Church and State. In 1833 he appered at the meeting of the British Association at Cambridge, and in the following year he passed away and was buried in the churchyard close to the house of Mr Gilman, where he had enjoyed every consolation which friendship and love could render. Coleridge died in the communion of the Church of England, of whose polity and teaching he had been for many years a loving admirer. An interesting letter to his god-child, written twelve days before his death, sums up his spiritual experience in a most touching form.

Of the extraordinary influence which he exercised in conversation it is impossible to speak fully here. Many of the most remarkable among the younger men of that period resorted to Highgate as to the shrine of an oracle, and although one or two disparaging judgment, such as that of Mr Carlyle, have been recorded, there can be no doubt that since Samuel Johnson there had been no such power in England. His nephew, Henry Nelson Coleridge, gathered together some specimens of the Table Talk of the few last years. But remarkable as there are for the breadth of sympathy and extent of reading disclosed, they will hardly convey the impressions furnished in a dramatic form, as in Boswell’s great work. Four volumes of Literary Remains—lately reprinted and rearranged—were published after his death, and these, along with the chapters on t eh poetry of Wordsworth in the Biographia Literaria, may be said to exhibit the full range of Coleridge’s power as a critic of poetry. In this region he stands supreme. With regard to the preface, which contains Wordsworth’s theory, Coleridge has honestly expressed his dissent:—"With many parts of this preface, in the sense attributed to them and which the words undoubtedly seem to authorize, I never concurred; but, on the contrary, objected to them as erroneous in principle, and contradictory (in appearance at least) both to other parts of the same preface, and to the author’s own preface in the greater number of the poems themselves." This disclaimer of perfect arrangement renders the remaining portion of what he says more valuable. Whoever desires to trace the real essential characteristics of poetry must turn to these pages, where the provinces of imagination and fancy are rightly discriminated. "Here," as Principal Shairp has well said, "are canons of judgment, not mechanical but living." Coleridge was in England the creator of that higher criticism which had already in Germany accomplished to much in the hands of Lessing and Goethe. It is enough to refer here to the fragmentary series of Shakespearian criticisms, containing evidence of the truest insight, and a marvelous appreciation of the judicial "sanity" which raises the greatest name in literature far above even the highest of the poets who approached him.

As a poet Coleridge’s own place is safe. His niche is the great gallery of English poets is secure. Of no one can it be more emphatically said that he was "of imagination all compact." His peculiar touch of melancholy tenderness may prevent his attaining a high place in popular estimation. He does not possess the fiery pulse and humaneness of Burns, but the exquisite perfection of his metre and the subtle alliance of his thought and expression must always secure for him the warmest admiration of true lovers of poetic art. In his early poems may be found traces of the fierce struggle of his youth. The most remarkable is the Monody on the Death of Chatterton and the Religious Musings. In what may be called his second period, the ode entitle France, considered by Shelley the finest in the language, is most memorable. The whole soul of the poet is reflected in the Ode to Dejection. The well-known lines—

"O Lady! We receive but what we give,
And in out life alone does nature live;
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud,"

with the passage which follows, contain more vividly, perhaps, than anything which Coleridge has written, the expression of the shaping and colouring function which he assigns, in the Biographia Literaria, to imagination. Christabel and the Ancient Mariner have so completely taken possession of the highest place, that it is needless to so more than allude to them. The supernatural has never received such treatment as in these two wonderful productions of his genius, and though the first of them remains a torso, it is the noblest torso in the gallery of English literature. Although Coleridge had, for many years before his death, almost entirely forsaken poetry, the few fragments of work which remain, written in later years, show little trace of weakness, although they are wanting in the unearthly melody which imparts such a charm to Kubla Khan, Love, and Youth and Age.

In one of the most remarkable of his republished essays, Mr Mill has contrasted Coleridge with Bentham, and called especial attention to his position as a political theorist. Few will be tempted to dispute the justice of Mr. Mill’s exposition of Coleridge’s views. He regards him as having in his Lay Sermons done is best to establish principles involved in English opinions and institutions. He admits, moreover, that in bringing into prominence the trust inherent in landed property Coleridge has done service to those who desire to conserve much of the existing system.

The first chapter of the work on Church and State contains the exposition of Coleridge’s idea of a church establishment. The clerisy of the nation is with him the body of true leaders in all that concerns national life. Theology is only a part of the great province within national control—"it is no essential part of the being of the national church, however conducive, or even indispensable, it may be to its well-being." This doctrine, however novel it may have been on its first appearance, has long been adopted by those who desire to preserve the endowments of establishments. In all his political writings Coleridge is at war with what has been called the laissez-faire doctrine and no one has more emphatically declared what the real objects of a state are.

In everything which Coleridge wrote, there are traces of the philosophy which had become to him a second nature. After having abandoned the teaching of Hartley, he directed his attention for a time to Leibnitz and Spinoza. But the systems of these two great men never really captivated him. It was to Kant that he owed his initiation into the higher sphere of philosophy, and it is to Kant that he repeatedly refers as to a master who had moulded his thought. It is impossible to enter here upon the question as to whether Coleridge has represented Kant’s system completely. De Quincey, in one of his Letters to a Young Man, has referred to the modification and alternation which all things received in passing through Coleridge’s thoughts, and has declared that this "indocility of mind" had led Coleridge to make various misrepresentations of Kant. A similar accusation has been preferred by Dean Mansol; but to these charges it may be answered that Coleridge nowhere professes to interpret or describe Kant’s teaching. He was content to adopt the distinction between the understanding and the reason, but it was to the doctrine of the practical reason dominating and controlling speculation that he was irresistibly attracted. The immediate contemplation of truth enjoyed by the reason was the sum and substance of his speculations in this province. This doctrine constituted in Coleridge’s mind the bridge of passage from metaphysics to theology. "There," to use the words of Mr Hort, in an able essay on Coleridge, "he found an assurance that man’s reasoning powers are not man himself, and that he may rise above their impotence, and have direct faith in unseen realities." At a time when low and groveling ideas had obtained great predominance, Coleridge recalled men’s thoughts to the reality of spiritual truth, and attempted again to enlist interest for a reconciliation between metaphysics and ordinary modes of thought. The Friend contains an interesting application of the Platonic idea to induction. Coleridge declares that there is no real opposition between the method of Plato and that pursued by Bacon. It must, however, be acknowledged that the ground of his defence of Bacon hardly satisfies; and the observation of Dr Wherwll, "that Bacon does not give due weight to the dial element of our knowledge" will occur to the reader of the Essays on Method, however he may admire the skill and finish of Coleridge’s treatment. Scattered throughout the fragmentary writings of Coleridge may be found remarkable protests against the school of moral philosophy of which Paley was the chief. The governing nature of the moral principle with him determined the quality of moral action. Morality and religion are in his system twin stars, never to be divided. The real code, imperatively demanding the subjugation of man, issued from the divine will, resident, in a measure, in each man. He eagerly disclaims, however, all theories which would claim an inherent power in reason to determine questions of civil government. His contention against Rousseau is most effective, and even at the present time must possess an interest for all engaged in political deliberation. Since the able defence of Sara Coleridge, contained in her edition of her father’s Biographia Literaria, discussions regarding the plagiarisms of Coleridge may be said to have been forgotten. The infirmity of his character, and the mental confusion caused by the unhappy habit which so long had dominion over him, indisposed him for the exactitude rightly demanded from all who undertake philosophical discussion. An interesting communication from Schelling to Dean Stanley declares that that great thinker vindicated Coleridge from the charge of plagiarism. In the latter part of his life, more than one of those admitted to his confidence have given curious instances of his confusion between the words of an author and the marginalia which he had written in that author’s pages. A letter to Mr Cottle, written in the year 1807, described in an interesting way Coleridge’s abandonment of Unitarianism and his final acquiescence in the creed of the church. As a theologian he contended earnestly for the self-evidencing nature of revealed religion. To historical and miraculous proof he may be said to have assigned a secondary place. Grasping the idea of the Incarnation he held that miracles were the needful outcomes of the great fact, and he taught that the adaptation of truth to the moral nature constituted its strongest evidence. For the teaching of Luther he had a profound admiration, and with the works of the great English divines he was thoroughly familiar. In the Aids to Reflection—a work which has been the especial favourite of some of the most remarkable of recent divines—after discussing the difficulties of thought and speculation, he grapples with the moral impediments which surround the doctrines of original sin and atonement. His earnest, passionate yearning after truth is manifested in very page of this remarkable book. Whatever may be thought of the conclusions at which he arrives, the convictions of the writer, and his intense sympathy with all inquiring spirits, lift the book into a place in the affections of its readers. It is impossible almost to convey any adequate idea of the richness and variety of Coleridge’s speculations on theology and religion, scattered throughout his too fragmentary works. The Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, published since his death, intended not to lessen but to increase the reverence with which Christians regard the Bible, has been more misunderstood than any portion of his writings. That the real object of Coleridge was to conserve and not to destroy now that the mists of controversy are dispelled, must be apparent to every one who peruses this little volume. Much, indeed, that seems startling in it on its first appearance has now been accepted as matter of familiar truth.

The fame of Coleridge as a philosophic thinker is undoubtedly, at present, not so great as it was during the twenty years immediately after his death. The generation of those who "owed" to his teaching "even their own selves" had nearly passed away. But the influence which he exerted as a stimulating force, and the intellectual activity of many of his disciples, remain to testify to the greatness of the services which he rendered to philosophy and religion. He was a true lover of light, and desired that all philosophical investigation should be conducted in the independent spirit which is reflected in the noble aphorism of his Aids to Reflection—"he who begins by loving Christianity better than truth with proceed by loving his own sect and church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all."

After Coleridge’s death several of his works were edited by his nephew, Henry Nelson Coleridge, the husband of Sara, the poet’s only daughter. In 1847 Sara Coleridge published the Biographia Lateraria, enriched with annotations and biographical supplement from her own pen. Three volumes of political writings, entitled Essays on his own Times, were also published by Sara Coleridge in 1850. Besides the essay on Coleridge contained in the first volume of J.S. Mill’s Dissertations, there is very complete study of Coleridge in Principal Shairp’s Syudies in Poetry and Philosophy. Mr Hort’s Essay, in the Cambridge Essays of 1856, is full of interest. In Archdeacon Hare’s Mission of the Comforter will be found valuable reflections on the theological position of Coleridge. (G. D. B.)

The above article was written by the Very Rev. George David Boyle
, M.A.; Dean of Salisbury, 1880-1901; author of Recollections of the Dean of Salisbury, Richard Baxter, and My Aids to the Divine Life.

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