Page images
PDF
EPUB

а

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

her husband. Their son gave tokens from the earliest childhood,
of a singular precocity, abstractedness and force of intellect, of an
imagination so absorbing as to make hiin a day.dreamer, and
most gentle and affectionate disposition. He says of himself “I
was in earliest childhood huffed away from the enjoyments of
muscular activity in play, to take refuge at my mother's side, on
my little stool, to read my little book, and to listen to the talk of
my elders. I never played except by myself, and then only act-
ing over what I had been reading or fancying, or half one, half
the other, with a stick cutting down weeds and nettles, as one of
the seven champions of Christendom. Alas, I had all the sim-
plicity, all the docility of the little child, but none of the child's
habits. I never thought as a child, never had the language of a
child." Soon after the death of his father, Coleridge was sent to
Christ's Hospital in London, being then only seven years of age.
Concerning this he exclaims, “Oh the cruelty of separating a
poor lad from his early homestead! How in my dreams would
my native town come back, with its churches and trees and
faces!" Here "he was depressed, moping, friendless, a poor or-
phan half-starved.” His constitution was orignally delicate, and
by excess in bathing, a foundation was laid for “ those bodily suf-
ferings which embittered his life and rendered it little else than
one of continued sickness and suffering."1 From eight to four-
teen, in addition to his school studies, in which he might have
been passed off for as “pretty a juvenile prodigy as was ever
emasculated and ruined by fond and idle wonderments," he in-
dulged his appetite for reading to an enormous extent. Before
he went to the university, he earnestly sought to be apprenticed
to a neighboring shoemaker, for whom he had contracted a liking,
and had been very soundly flogged for setting himself up as an
infidel, on the reading of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. At
the age of nineteen he was entered at Jesus' College, Cambridge.
“ He left school with great anticipations of success from all who
knew him, for his character for scholarship and extraordinary ac-
counts of his genius had preceded him.” “ His first step was to
involve himself in much misery, which followed him in after life.”
Being ignorant of university customs, he trusted the furnishing of
his lodgings to a private upholsterer, who involved him at a stroke,

"

!

a

1 " Sickness 'tis true Whole years of weary days, besieged him close Even to the gates and inlets of his life.”

A Tombless Epitaph by S. T. C.

1847.]

University and subsequent Life.

121

а

all without means as he was, in a debt of a hundred pounds. It was the vexation from his college debts, and the despair of obtain. ing a Fellowship and of attaining to the honors and ease of a university life, through his distaste for the mathematics, that drove him from Cambridge in agony and desperation, in 1793, after a career brilliant in the studies and pursuits which were congenial to his taste. He went to London and enlisted in a regiment of dragoons, under the name of Comberbacke. The story is well known of his being restored to his friends, and of his return to Cambridge. Here he did not remain long, but left the university without a degree. While at the university he became a Unitarian. in religion, and a Hartleian in philosophy, by the influence of a fellow collegian by the name of Freud, and as it would seem, under the same impulses by which college students so readily become anything that is antagonistic to the influences about them. This effectually prevented his taking orders in the church of England, and he resolved upon literature as his profession for life.

He associated himself with Southey, and their joint residence was in Bristol and its neighborhood, from 1794 to 1798. It was at Bristol that his dream of Pantisocracy, or a millennial social State on the banks of the Susquehanna, was matured and shattered. It was here that his zeal for the new era which the French revolution promised, was most ardent, and was then dashed forever by the bitter disappointment in which thousands of the generous youth of England sympathized. It was here that he was known as a political lecturer and a Unitarian preacher. It was here too, that his political powers revived and brought forth buds and flowers of so glorious promise. It was here also, at the foot of the Quantock, that his philosophical and religious opinions underwent so entire a revolution, and the foundations were laid of his new views in theology and metaphysical science.

In 1798 he went to Germany with Wordsworth, where he resided fourteen months. He returned with a knowledge of German and of the Kantian philosophy.

After his return he was

1 " I retired to a cottage in Somersetshire at the foot of the Quantock, and devoted my thoughts and studies to the foundations of religion and morals. Here I found myself all afloat. Doubts rushed in; broke upon me from the fountains of the great deep' and fell from the windows of heaven.' The fontal truths of natural religion and the books of Revelation alike contribute to the flood; and it was long ere my ark touched on an Ararat, and rested." Literary Life, 2d Am. ed. p. 117, VOL. IV. No. 13.

11

employed with Southey and others to write for the Morning Chronicle, and resided awhile at Keswick and Grasmere. His health requiring the change, he set sail for Malta in 1902, from whence he returned to Eugland in 1806. From this time till 1816 he had no fixed home. During this interval he published the first edition of The Friend, and in 1816 the Biographia Literaria.

It was not far from the time of his return from Germany, 1799, that he was led to the habit of using opium to excess. He began it with entire ignorance that it was opium which he took, and remained for some months in the simplicity of this ignorance. His constant ill-health was the continued occasion, arising from a complication of internal maladies, “the cause of which was the organic change slowly and gradually taking place in the structure of the heart itself.” To the evil of this practice he became terrifically alive before he broke himself from its bonds. He confessed its sin and its shame, in letters written during the period of indulging it, and by a deliberate record in the review after his emancipation.

It was as a patient laboring under this infirmity that he came to the residence of Dr. Gilman, Highgate, in the year 1816. Here he remained till his death, a cherished inmate, with friends in every way fitted to appreciate and soothe him. His efforts at self conquest were effectual, and Coleridge gained an entire victory over the appetite, which to a man whose frame was disease itself, must have presented the strongest and the most plausible solicitations to be gratified.

We shall not stay to speak of the genius of Coleridge. The extent of his reading, the ease with which he saw the secret of every subject, the splendor of his imagination, the force and fire of his language, are most obvious to every reader. There was one feature, however, which deserves a distinct recognition, as the key to the marked idiosyncrasy of his intellect and character. This was his entire inability to comprehend or adapt himself to the minds of other men. The richness and force of his own mind, seemed to absorb him altogether, and to shed itself like a bewildering glare over every man and thing which came near him. He imagined, or seemed to imagine, that the intellectual world of other minds moved in unison and harmony with his own; that they saw with his insight, and read with his reading, and were transferred so entirely into his consciousness, that what was to 1847.)

1 Gilman's Life, pp. 246—251.

Coleridge's intellectual Peculiarities.

123

him method and demonstration, was method and demonstration to them. This intellectual characteristic always pertains in a degree to every great mind, which is so borne forward by the strong stream of its own native force, or is so occupied with its own movements, as to misjudge in respect to the impression which it makes on others. But in Coleridge its development was out of all reasonable proportions; it was in very deed monstrous. First of all, his disposition was childlike, nay it was almost infantine, gentle, affectionate and confiding; he never dreamed of instructing others by authority, but would as soon sit at their feet to learn of them, as to place them at his own. It was only by slow experience, learned by numberless painful lessons, that he came at last to know, that all men were not like himself either in capacity or in teachableness. Then, too, Coleridge was never forced, by the routine of any profession or employment, to adapt his own mind to the workings of other minds. Ile was never, su to speak, interlocked and caught into the movements of the intellectual world around him. In the school and the university, the ebullient and rejoicing tide of his own strong spirit, broke over all the barriers, which were fitted to guide and regulate its flowing. Domestic life, for whose fault we know not, failed to lead him by its gentler and more gradual guidance, into the ways and habits of the social world. He hardly assumed, and if he assumed, he never could fulfil the responsibilities of any regular engagement or service.

This is not all. He had good reason to be careless of the opinions of other men, and even to despise the works and ways of the generation with which he lived, especially during the earlier period of his literary life. No one who knows anything of the degeneracy of the true life of England, during the first twenty

Coleridge, in early manhood, was intimate with Mr. afterwards Sir Humphry Davy. Perhaps at that moinent there were no two young minds in England, more alike in their original endowments for poetry and science, than these two young men, who were perhaps gifted with a inore splendid genius than any two men of their age. This is proved by the entireness of their sympathy with each other. Their later history as we follow them in their wide diverg. ence from each other, in respect to the movement of their minds and the posi. tive results of each to science, is a fine comment on the difference between a man who makes his impulses his law, or in other words is a lawless rover in the intellectual world, and one who attaches himself to the minds of others, and by bending to their wants and svinpathies, wields and commands his generation. In the dialogues entitled “ Consolations in Travel,” by Davy, there is hardly a page that does not suggest the thoughts of Coleridge, both by similarity and contrast,

[ocr errors]

1

five years after Coleridge appeared, can doubt, that much of his impatient contempt of his contemporaries, was honorable and only honorable to himself. His own fervent and indignant words fitly describe this condition of things, and his own feelings in respect to it.

“ Oh holy Paul! Oh beloved John! full of light and love, whose books are full of intuitions, as those of Paul are books of energies. O Luther! Calvin! Fox with Penn and Barclay! O Zinzendorf! and ye too, Francis of Sales and Fenelon; yea, even Aquinas and Scotus! With what astoundment would ye, if ye were alive, with your merely human perfections, listen to the creed of our, so called, rational religionists! Rational! They, who in the very outset deny all reason and leave us nothing but degrees to distinguish us from brutes ;" [who apply figurative interpretation “to rot away the very pillars, yea, to fret away and dissolve the very corner stones of the temple of religion”). “Oh place before your eyes the island of Britain, in the reign of Alfred, its unpierced woods, its wide morasses and dreary heaths, its blood-stained and desolated shores, ita untaught and scanty population ; behold the monarch listening now to Bede, and now to John Erigena; and then see the same realm, a mighty empire, full of motion, full of books, where the cotter's son, twelve years old, has read more than archbishops of yore, and possesses the opportunity of reading more than our Alfred himself;—and then, finally, behold this mighty nation, its rulers and its wise men, listening to-Paley, and 10— Malthus! It is mournful! mournful !!!

Nor was it for a superficial philosophy and a shallow religionism alone, that Coleridge had reason to be offended with the men of his time. In literature, too, as we should expect, their tastes were wholly at variance with his. With the exception of Burke and Cowper, how vapid and unsatisfying was the literature of England till the Lake school of poets, with their associate prose writers, fought themselves into popularity and changed for the better the current of English thought and feeling. Let any one compare the best writers in England, at the present moment, with what they were fifty years since, and how vast is the change for the better in respect to the worthiness of their themes and the manner in which they are treated.

In effecting this change Coleridge was most active. In order to effect it, he was obliged to contend against fixed habits, inveterate prejudices, acute and masterly criticism, and savage satire

· Southey's Omniana, 1812.

« PreviousContinue »