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Walter Pater (1839-1894)

Coleridge (1865/1880)

{{Page 64}} {{Chapter 3}}

COLERIDGE *

* The latter part of this paper, like that on Dante Gabriel Rossetti was contributed to |Mr.| T. H. Ward's English Poets.

¶1
§1 FORMS of intellectual and spiritual culture sometimes exercise their subtlest and most artful charm when life is already passing from them. §2 Searching and irresistible as are the changes of the human spirit on its way to perfection, there is yet so much elasticity of temper that what must pass away sooner or later is not disengaged all at once, even from the highest order of minds. §3 Nature, which by one law of development evolves ideas, hypotheses, modes of inward life, and represses them in turn, has in this way provided that the earlier growth should propel its fibres into the later, and so transmit the whole of its forces in an unbroken continuity of life. §4 Then comes the spectacle of the reserve of the elder generation exquisitely refined by the antagonism of the new. §5 That current of new life chastens them while they contend against it. §6 Weaker minds fail to perceive {{Page 65}} the change : the clearest minds abandon themselves to it. §7 To feel the change everywhere, yet not abandon oneself to it, is a situation of difficulty and contention. §8 Communicating, in this way, to the passing stage of culture, the charm of what is chastened, high- strung, athletic, they yet detach the highest minds from the past, by pressing home its difficulties and finally proving it impossible. §9 Such has been the charm of many leaders of lost causes in philosophy and in religion. §10 It is the special charm of Coleridge, in connexion with those older methods of philosophic inquiry, over which the empirical philosophy of our day has triumphed.

¶2
§11 Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the "relative" spirit in place of the "absolute." §12 Ancient philosophy sought to arrest every object in an eternal outline, to fix thought in a necessary formula, and the varieties of life in a classification by "kinds," or genera. §13 To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known, except relatively and under conditions. §14 The philosophical conception of the relative has been developed in modern times through the influence of the sciences of observation. §15 Those sciences reveal types of life evanescing into each other by inexpressible refinements of change. §16 Things pass into their opposites by accumulation of undefinable quantities. §17 The {{Page 66}} growth of those sciences consists in a continual analysis of facts of rough and general observation into groups of facts more precise and minute. §18 The faculty for truth is recognised as a power of distinguishing and fixing delicate and fugitive detail. §19 The moral world is ever in contact with the physical, and the relative spirit has invaded moral philosophy from the ground of the inductive sciences. §20 There it has started a new analysis of the relations of body and mind, good and evil, freedom and necessity. §21 Hard and abstract moralities are yielding to a more exact estimate of the subtlety and complexity of our life. §22 Always, as an organism increases in perfection, the conditions of its life become more complex. §23 Man is the most complex of the products of nature. §24 Character merges into temperament : the nervous system refines itself into intellect. §25 Man's physical organism is played upon not only by the physical conditions about it, but by remote laws of inheritance, the vibration of long-past acts reaching him in the midst of the new order of things in which he lives. §26 When we have estimated these conditions he is still not yet simple and isolated ; for the mind of the race, the character of the age, sway him this way or that through the medium of language and current ideas. §27 It seems as if the most opposite statements about him were alike true : he is so receptive, all the influ-{{Page 67}} ences of nature and of society ceaselessly playing upon him, so that every hour in his life is unique, changed altogether by a stray word, or glance, or touch. §28 It is the truth of these relations -- that experience gives us, not the truth of eternal outlines ascertained once for all, but a world of fine gradations subtly linked conditions, shifting intricately as we ourselves change -- and bids us, by a constant clearing of the organs of observation and perfecting of analysis, to make what we can of these. §29 To the intellect, the critical spirit, just these subtleties of effect are more precious than anything else. §30 What is lost in precision of form is gained in intricacy of expression. §31 It is no vague scholastic abstraction that will satisfy the speculative instinct in our modern minds. §32 Who would change the colour or curve of a rose-leaf for that ousia achr{o}matos, asch{ee}matistos, anaph{ee}s -- that colourless, formless, intangible, being -- Plato put so high ? §33 For the true illustration of the speculative temper is not the Hindoo mystic, lost to sense, understanding, individuality, but one such as Goethe, to whom every moment of life brought its contribution of experimental, individual knowledge ; by whom no touch of the world of form, colour, and passion was disregarded. §34

¶3
§35 Now the literary life of Coleridge was a disinterested struggle against the relative spirit. §36 With a {{Page 68}} strong native bent towards the tracking of all questions, critical or practical, to first principles, he is ever restlessly scheming to "apprehend the absolute," to affirm it effectively, to get it acknowledged. §37 It was an effort, surely, an effort of sickly thought, that saddened his mind, and limited the operation of his unique poetic gift.

¶4
§38 So what the reader of our own generation will least find in Coleridge's prose writings is the excitement of the literary sense. §39 And yet, in those grey volumes, we have the larger part of the production of one who made way ever by a charm, the charm of voice, of aspect, of language, above all by the intellectual charm of new, moving, luminous ideas. §40 Perhaps the chief offence in Coleridge is an excess of seriousness, a seriousness arising not from any moral principle, but from a misconception of the perfect manner. §41 There is a certain shade of unconcern, the perfect manner of the eighteenth century, which may be thought to mark complete culture in the handling of abstract questions. §42 The humanist, the possessor of that complete culture, does not " weep " over the failure of " a theory of the quantification of the predicate," nor " shriek " over the fall of a philosophical formula. §43 A kind of humour is, in truth, one of the conditions of the just mental attitude, in the criticism of by-past stages of thought, {{Page 69}} Humanity cannot afford to be too serious about them, any more than a man of good sense can afford to be too serious in looking back upon his own childhood. §44 Plato, whom Coleridge claims as the first of his spiritual ancestors, Plato, as we remember him, a true humanist, holds his theories lightly, glances with a somewhat blithe and naive inconsequence from one view to another, not anticipating the burden of importance " views" will one day have for men. §45 In reading him one feels how lately it was that Crœsus thought it a paradox to say that external prosperity was not necessarily happiness. §46 But on Coleridge lies the whole weight of the sad reflection that has since come into the world, with which for us the air is full, which the " children in the marketplace" repeat to each other. §47 His very language is forced and broken lest some saving formula should be lost -- distinctities, enucleation, pentad of operative Christianity ; he has a whole armoury of these terms, and expects to turn the tide of human thought by fixing the sense of such expressions as " reason," " understanding," "idea." §48 Again, he lacks the jealousy of a true artist in excluding all associations that have no colour, or charm, or gladness in them ; and everywhere allows the impress of a somewhat inferior theological literature.

¶5
§49 " I was driven from life in motion to life in {{Page 70}} thought and sensation :" so Coleridge sums up his childhood, with its delicacy, its sensitiveness, and passion. §50 But at twenty - five he was exercising a wonderful charm, and had already defined for himself his peculiar line of intellectual activity. §51 He had an odd, attractive gift of conversation, or rather of monologue, as Madame de Staël observed of him, full of bizarreries, with the rapid alternations of a dream, and here or there an unexpected summons into a world strange to the hearer, abounding in images drawn from a sort of divided imperfect life, the consciousness of the opium-eater, as of one to whom the external world penetrated only in part, and, blent with all this, passages of deep obscurity, precious, if at all, only for their musical cadence, echoes in Coleridge of the eloquence of those older English writers of whom he was so ardent a lover. §52 And all through this brilliant early manhood we may discern the power of the "Asiatic " temperament, of that voluptuousness, which is connected perhaps with his appreciation of the intimacy, the almost mystical communion of touch, between nature and man. §53 " I am much better," he writes, " and my new and tender health is all over me like a voluptuous feeling." §54 And whatever fame, or charm, or life-inspiring gift he has had as a speculative thinker, is the vibration of the interest he excited then, the {{Page 71}} propulsion into years which clouded his early promise of that first buoyant, irresistible, self- assertion. §55 So great is even the indirect power of a sincere effort towards the ideal life, of even a temporary escape of the spirit from routine. §56

¶6
§57 In 1798 he visited Germany, then, the only half-known, " promised land," of the metaphysical, the " absolute," philosophy. §58 A beautiful fragment of this period remains, describing a spring excursion to the Brocken. §59 His excitement still vibrates in it. §60 Love, all joyful states of mind, are self-expressive : they loosen the tongue, they fill the thoughts with sensuous images, they harmonise one with the world of sight. §61 We hear of the " rich graciousness and courtesy" of Coleridge's manner, of the white and delicate skin, the abundant black hair, the full, almost animal lips -- that whole physiognomy of the dreamer, already touched with narcotism. §62 One says, of the beginning of one of his Unitarian sermons : " His voice rose like a stream of rich, distilled perfumes ;" another, " He talks like an angel, and does -- nothing !"

¶7
§63 The Aids to Reflection, The Friend, The Biographia Literaria : those books came from one whose vocation was in the world of the imagination, the theory and practice of poetry. §64 And yet, perhaps, of all books that have been influential in {{Page 72}} modern times, they are furthest from artistic form -- bundles of notes ; the original matter inseparably mixed up with that borrowed from others ; the whole, just that mere preparation for an artistic effect which the finished literary artist would be careful one day to destroy. §65 Here, again, we have a trait profoundly characteristic of Coleridge. §66 He sometimes attempts to reduce a phase of thought, subtle and exquisite, to conditions too rough for it. §67 He uses a purely speculative gift for direct moral edification. §68 Scientific truth is a thing fugitive, relative, full of fine gradations : he tries to fix it in absolute formulas. §69 The Aids to Reflection, The Friend, are efforts to propagate the volatile spirit of conversation into the less ethereal fabric of a written book ; and it is only here or there that the poorer matter becomes vibrant, is really lifted by the spirit.

¶8
§70 De Quincey said of him that " he wanted better bread than can be made with wheat :" Lamb, that from childhood he had" hungered for eternity." §71 Yet the faintness, the continuous dissolution, whatever its cause, which soon supplanted the buoyancy of his first wonderful years, had its own consumptive refinements, and even brought, as to the " Beautiful Soul " in Wilhelm Meister, a faint religious ecstasy -- that " singing in the sails " which is not of the breeze. §72 Here again is one of his occasional notes : --

{{Page 73}}

¶9
§73 " In looking at objects of nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon, dim-glimmering through the window- pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it §74 were asking, a symbolical language for something within me, that already and for ever exists, than observing anything new. §75 Even when the latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling, as if that new phenomenon were the dim awaking of a forgotten or hidden truth of my inner nature. §76 While I was preparing the pen to make this remark, I lost the train of thought which had led me to it."

¶10
§77 What a distemper of the eye of the mind ! What an almost bodily distemper there is in that !

¶11
§78 Coleridge's intellectual sorrows were many ; but he had one singular intellectual happiness. §79 With an inborn taste for transcendental philosophy, he lived just at the time when that philosophy took an immense spring in Germany, and connected itself with an impressive literary movement. §80 He had the good luck to light upon it in its freshness, and introduce it to his countrymen. §81 What an opportunity for one reared on the colourless analytic English philosophies of the last century, but who feels an irresistible attraction towards bold metaphysical synthesis ! §82 How rare are such occasions of intellectual contentment ! §83 This transcendental philosophy, chiefly as systematised by the mystic Schelling, Cole{{Page 74}} ridge applied with an eager, unwearied subtlety, to the questions of theology, and poetic or artistic criticism. §84 It is in his theory of poetry, of art, that he comes nearest to principles of permanent truth and importance : that is the least fugitive part of his prose work. §85 What, then, is the essence of his philosophy of art -- of imaginative production ?

¶12
§86 Generally, it may be described as an attempt to reclaim the world of art as a world of fixed laws, to show that the creative activity of genius and the simplest act of thought are but higher and lower products of the laws of a universal logic. §87 Criticism, feeling its own inadequacy in dealing with the greater works of art, is sometimes tempted to make too much of those dark and capricious suggestions of genius, which even the intellect possessed by them is unable to explain or recall. §88 It has seemed due to the half-sacred character of those works to ignore all analogy between the productive process by which they had their birth, and the simpler processes of mind. §89 Coleridge, on the other hand, assumes that the highest phases of thought must be more, not less, than the lower, subject to law.

¶13
§90 With this interest, in the Biographia Literaria, he refines Schelling's " Philosophy of Nature " into a theory of art. §91 " There can be no plagiarism in philosophy," says Heine : -- Es giebt kein Plagiat in {{Page 75}} der Philosophie, in reference to the charge brought against Schelling of unacknowledged borrowing from Bruno ; and certainly that which is common to Coleridge and Schelling and Bruno alike is of far earlier origin than any of them. §92 Schellingism, the " Philosophy of Nature," is indeed a constant tradition in the history of thought : it embodies a permanent type of the speculative temper. §93 That model of conceiving nature as a mirror or reflex of the intelligence of man may be traced up to the first beginnings of Greek speculation. §94 There are two ways of envisaging those aspects of nature which seem to bear the impress of reason or intelligence. §95 There is the deist's way, which regards them merely as marks of design, which separates the informing mind from its result in nature, as the mechanist from the machine ; and there is the pantheistic way, which identifies the two, which regards nature itself as the living energy of an intelligence of the same kind as though vaster in scope than the human. §96 Partly through the influence of mythology, the Greek mind became early possessed with the conception of nature as living, thinking, almost speaking to the mind of man. §97 This unfixed poetical prepossession, reduced to an abstract form, petrified into an idea, is the force which gives unity of aim to Greek philosophy. §98 Little by little, it works out the substance of the {{Page 76}} Hegelian formula : " Whatever is, is according to reason : whatever is according to reason, that is." Experience, which has gradually saddened the earth's colours for us, stiffened its motions, withdrawn from it some blithe and debonair presence, has quite changed the character of the science of nature, as we understand it. §99 The " positive" method, in truth, makes very little account of marks of intelligence in nature : in its wider view of phenomena, it sees that those instances are a minority, and may rank as happy coincidences : it absorbs them in the larger conception of universal mechanical law. §100 But the suspicion of a mind latent in nature, struggling for release, and intercourse with the intellect of man through true ideas, has never ceased to haunt a certain class of minds. §101 Started again and again in successive periods by enthusiasts on the antique pattern, in each case the thought may have seemed paler and more fantastic amid the growing consistency and sharpness of outline of other and more positive forms of knowledge. §102 Still, wherever the speculative instinct has been united with a certain poetic inwardness of temperament, as in Bruno, in Schelling, there that old Greek conception, like some seed floating in the air, has taken root and sprung up anew. §103 Coleridge, thrust inward upon himself, driven from " life in thought and sensation " to life in thought only, feels {{Page 77}} already, in his dark London school, a thread of the Greek mind on this matter vibrating strongly in him. §104 At fifteen he is discoursing on Plotinus, as in later years he reflects from Schelling that flitting intellectual tradition. §105 He supposes a subtle, sympathetic co-ordination between the ideas of the human reason and the laws of the natural world. §106 Science, the real knowledge of that natural world, is to be attained, not by observation, experiment, analysis, patient generalisation, but by the evolution or recovery of those ideas directly from within, by a sort of Platonic " recollection "; every group of observed facts remaining an enigma until the appropriate idea is struck upon them from the mind of a Newton, or a Cuvier, the genius in whom sympathy with the universal reason becomes entire. §107 In the next place, he conceives that this reason or intelligence in nature becomes reflective, or self-conscious. §108 He fancies he can trace, through all the simpler forms of life, fragments of an eloquent prophecy about the human mind. §109 The whole of nature he regards as a development of higher forms out of the lower, through shade after shade of systematic change. §110 The dim stir of chemical atoms towards the axis of crystal form, the trance-like life of plants, the animal troubled by strange irritabilities, are stages which anticipate consciousness. §111 All through the ever-increasing {{Page 78}} movement of life that was shaping itself ; every successive phase of life, in its unsatisfied susceptibilities, seeming to be drawn out of its own limits by the more pronounced current of life on its confines, the "shadow of approaching humanity" gradually deepening, the latent intelligence winning a way to the surface. §112 And at this point the law of development does not lose itself in caprice : rather it becomes more constraining and incisive. §113 From the lowest to the very highest acts of the conscious intelligence, there is another series of refining shades. §114 Gradually the mind concentrates itself, frees itself from the limitations of the particular, the individual, attains a strange power of modifying and centralising what it receives from without, according to the pattern of an inward ideal. §115 At last, in imaginative genius, ideas become effective : the intelligence of nature, all its discursive elements now connected and justified, is clearly reflected; the interpretation of its latent purposes being embodied in the great central products of creative art. §116 The secret of creative genius would be an exquisitely purged sympathy with nature, with the reasonable soul antecedent there. §117 Those associative conceptions of the imagination, those eternally fixed types of action and passion, would come, not so much from the conscious invention of the artist, as from his self- surrender to the {{Page 79}} suggestions of an abstract reason or ideality in things : they would be evolved by the stir of nature itself, realising the highest reach of its dormant reason : they would have a kind of prevenient necessity to rise at some time to the surface of the human mind.

¶14
§118 It is natural that Shakespeare should be the favourite illustration of such criticism, whether in England or Germany. §119 The first suggestion in Shakespeare is that of capricious detail, of a waywardness that plays with the parts careless of the impression of the whole ; what supervenes is the constraining unity of effect, the ineffaceable impression, of Hamlet or Macbeth. §120 His hand moving freely is curved round as if by some law of gravitation from within : an energetic unity or identity makes itself visible amid an abounding variety. §121 This unity or identity Coleridge exaggerates into something like the identity of a natural organism, and the associative act which effected it into something closely akin to the primitive power of nature itself. §122 " In the Shakespearian drama," he says, "there is a vitality which grows and evolves itself from within."

¶15
§123 Again --

" §124 He, too, worked in the spirit of nature, by evolving the germ from within, by the imaginative power, according to the idea. For as the power of seeing is to light, so is an idea in mind to a law in nature. §125 They are correlatives which suppose each other."

{{Page 80}}

¶16
§126 Again --

§127 " The organic form is innate : it shapes, as it develops, itself from within, and the fulness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form. §128 Such as the life is, such is the form. §129 Nature, the prime, genial artist, inexhaustible in diverse powers, is equally inexhaustible in forms : each exterior is the physiognomy of the being within, and even such is the appropriate excellence of Shakespeare, himself a nature humanised, a genial understanding, directing self-consciously a power and an implicit wisdom deeper even than our consciousness."

¶17
§130 In this late age we are become so familiarised with the greater works of art as to be little sensitive of the act of creation in them : they do not impress us as a new presence in the world. §131 Only sometimes, in productions which realise immediately a profound influence and enforce a change in taste, we are actual witnesses of the moulding of an unforeseen type by some new principle of association ; and to that phenomenon Coleridge wisely recalls our attention. §132 What makes his view a one-sided one is, that in it the artist has become almost a mechanical agent : instead of the most luminous and self-possessed phase of consciousness, the associative act in art or poetry is made to look like some blindly organic process of assimilation. §133 The work of art is likened to a living organism. §134 That expresses truly the sense of a self-delighting, independent life which the finished {{Page 81}} work of art gives us : it hardly figures the process by which such work was produced. §135 Here there is no blind ferment of lifeless elements towards the realisation of a type. §136 By exquisite analysis the artist attains clearness of idea ; then, through many stages of refining, clearness of expression. §137 He moves slowly over his work, calculating the tenderest tone, and restraining the subtlest curve, never letting hand or fancy move at large, gradually enforcing flaccid spaces to the higher degree of expressiveness. §138 The philosophic critic, at least, will value, even in works of imagination, seemingly the most intuitive, the power of the understanding in them, their logical process of construction, the spectacle of a supreme intellectual dexterity which they afford.

¶18
§139 Coleridge's prose writings on philosophy, politics, religion, and criticism, were, in truth, but one element in a whole lifetime of endeavours to present the then recent metaphysics of Germany to English readers, as a legitimate expansion of the older, classical and native masters of what has been variously called the a priori, or absolute, or spiritual, or Platonic, view of things. §140 His criticism, his challenge for recognition in the concrete, visible, finite work of art, of the dim, unseen, comparatively infinite, soul or power of the artist, may well be remembered as part of the long {{Page 82}} pleading of German culture for the things " behind the veil." §141 To introduce that spiritual philosophy, as represented by the more transcendental parts of Kant, and by Schelling, into all subjects, as a system of reason in them, one and ever identical with itself, however various the matter through which it was diffused, became with him the motive of an unflagging enthusiasm, which seems to have been the one thread of continuity in a life otherwise singularly wanting in unity of purpose, and in which he was certainly far from uniformly at his best. §142 Fragmentary and obscure, but often eloquent, and always at once earnest and ingenious, those writings, supplementing his remarkable gift of conversation, were directly and indirectly influential, even on some the furthest removed from Coleridge's own masters ; on John Stuart Mill, for instance, and some of the earlier writers of the "high-church" school. §143 Like his verse, they display him also in two other characters -- as a student of words, and as a psychologist, that is, as a more minute observer or student than other men of the phenomena of mind. §144 To note the recondite associations of words, old or new ; to expound the logic, the reasonable soul, of their various uses ; to recover the interest of older writers who had had a phraseology of their own -- this was a vein of inquiry allied to his undoubted gift of tracking out and analysing curious {{Page 83}} modes of thought. §145 A quaint fragment of verse on Human Life might serve to illustrate his study of the earlier English philosophical poetry. §146 The latter gift, that power of the "subtle-souled psychologist," as Shelley calls him, seems to have been connected with some tendency to disease in the physical temperament, something of a morbid want of balance in those parts where the physical and intellectual elements mix most closely together, with a kind of languid visionariness, deep-seated in the very constitution of the "narcotist," who had quite a gift for "plucking the poisons of self-harm," and which the actual habit of taking opium, accidentally acquired, did but reinforce. §147 This morbid languor of nature, connected both with his fitfulness of purpose and his rich delicate dreaminess, qualifies Coleridge's poetic composition even more than his prose ; his verse, with the exception of his avowedly political poems, being, unlike that of the "Lake School," to which in some respects he belongs, singularly unaffected by any moral, or professional, or personal effort or ambition, -- " written," as he says, "after the more violent emotions of sorrow, to give him pleasure, when perhaps nothing else could ;" but coming thus, indeed, very close to his own most intimately personal characteristics, and having a certain languidly soothing grace or cadence, for its most fixed quality, from first to last. §148 After {{Page 84}} some Platonic soliloquy on a flower opening on a fine day in February, he goes on --

" Dim similitudes
Weaving in mortal strains, I've stolen one hour
From anxious self, life's cruel taskmaster !
And the warm wooings of this sunny day
Tremble along my frame and harmonise
The attempered organ, that even saddest thoughts
Mix with some sweet sensations, like harsh tunes
Played deftly on a sweet-toned instrument."

¶19
§149 The expression of two opposed, yet allied, elements of sensibility in these lines, is very true to Coleridge : -- the grievous agitation, the grievous listlessness, almost never entirely relieved, together with a certain physical voluptuousness. §150 He has spoken several times of the scent of the bean-field in the air : -- the tropical touches in a chilly climate ; his is a nature that will make the most of these, which finds a sort of caress in such things. §151 Kubla Khan, the fragment of a poem actually composed in some certainly not quite healthy sleep, is perhaps chiefly of interest as showing, by the mode of its composition, how physical, how much of a diseased or valetudinarian temperament, in its moments of relief, Coleridge's happiest gift really was ; and side by side with Kubla Khan should be read, as Coleridge placed it, the Pains of Sleep, to illustrate that retarding physical burden in his temperament, that "unimpas-{{Page 85}} sioned grief," the source of which lay so near the source of those pleasures. §152 Connected also with this, and again in contrast with Wordsworth, is the limited quantity of his poetical performance, as he himself regrets so eloquently in the lines addressed to Wordsworth after his recitation of The Prelude. §153 It is like some exotic plant, just managing to blossom a little in the somewhat un-english air of Coleridge's own south-western birthplace, but never quite well there.

¶20
§154 In 1798 he joined Wordsworth in the composition of a volume of poems -- the Lyrical Ballads. §155 What Wordsworth then wrote already vibrates with that blithe impulse which carried him to final happiness and self- possession. §156 In Coleridge we feel already that faintness and obscure dejection which clung like some contagious damp to all his work. §157 Wordsworth was to be distinguished by a joyful and penetrative conviction of the existence of certain latent affinities between nature and the human mind, which reciprocally gild the mind and nature with a kind of "heavenly alchemy."

"My voice proclaims
How exquisitely the individual mind
(And the progressive powers, perhaps, no less
Of the whole species) to the external world
Is fitted ; and how exquisitely, too,
The external world is fitted to the mind ;

{{Page 86}}

And the creation, by no lower name
Can it be called, which they with blended might
Accomplish."

§158 In Wordsworth this took the form of an unbroken dreaming over the aspects and transitions of nature -- a reflective, though altogether unformulated, analysis of them.

¶21
§159 There are in Coleridge's poems expressions of this conviction as deep as Wordsworth's. §160 But Coleridge could never have abandoned himself to the dream, the vision, as Wordsworth did, because the first condition of such abandonment must be an unvexed quietness of heart. §161 No one can read the Lines composed above Tintern without feeling how potent the physical element was among the conditions of Wordsworth's genius -- " felt in the blood and felt along the heart."

" My whole life I have lived in quiet thought ! "

§162 The stimulus which most artists require of nature he can renounce. §163 He leaves the ready-made glory of the Swiss mountains that he may reflect glory on a mouldering leaf. §164 He loves best to watch the floating thistledown, because of its hint at an unseen life in the air. §165 Coleridge's temperament, aei en sthodra orexei, with its faintness, its grieved dejection, could never have been like that.

{{Page 87}}

" My genial spirits fail ;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast ?
It were a vain endeavour,
Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west :
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life whose fountains are within."

¶22
§166 Wordsworth's flawless temperament, his fine mountain atmosphere of mind, that calm, sabbatic, mystic, wellbeing which De Quincey, a little cynically, connected with worldly (that is to say, pecuniary) good fortune, kept his conviction of a latent intelligence in nature within the limits of sentiment or instinct, and confined it to those delicate and subdued shades of expression which alone perfect art allows. §167 In Coleridge's sadder, more purely intellectual, cast of genius, what with Wordsworth was sentiment or instinct became a philosophical idea, or philosophical formula, developed, as much as possible, after the abstract and metaphysical fashion of the transcendental schools of Germany.

¶23
§168 The period of Coleridge's residence at Nether Stowey, 1797-1798, was for him the annus mirabilis. §169 Nearly all the chief works by which his poetic fame will live were then composed or planned. §170 What shapes itself for criticism as the main phenomenon of Coleridge's poetic life, is not, as with most {{Page 88}} true poets, the gradual development of a poetic gift, determined, enriched, retarded, by the actual circumstances of the poet's life, but the sudden blossoming, through one short season, of such a gift already perfect in its kind, which thereafter deteriorates as suddenly, with something like premature old age. §171 Connecting this phenomenon with the leading motive of his prose writings, we might note it as the deterioration of a productive or creative power into one merely metaphysical or discursive. §172 In his unambitious conception of his function as a poet, and in the very limited quantity of his poetical performance, as I have said, he was a contrast to his friend Wordsworth. §173 That friendship with Wordsworth, the chief " developing " circumstance of his poetic life, comprehended a very close intellectual sympathy ; and in such association chiefly, lies whatever truth there may be in the popular classification of Coleridge as a member of what is called the " Lake School." §174 Coleridge's philosophical speculations do really turn on the ideas which underlay Wordsworth's poetical practice. §175 His prose works are one long explanation of all that is involved in that famous distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination. §176 Of what is understood by both writers as the imaginative quality in the use of poetic figures, we may take some words of Shakespeare as an example. --

{{Page 89}}

" My cousin Suffolk,
My soul shall thine keep company to heaven :
Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast."

§177 The complete infusion here of the figure into the thought, so vividly realised, that, though birds are not actually mentioned, yet the sense of their flight, conveyed to us by the single word " abreast," comes to be more than half of the thought itself : -- this, as the expression of exalted feeling, is an instance of what Coleridge meant by Imagination. §178 And this sort of identification of the poet's thought, of himself, with the image or figure which serves him, is the secret, sometimes, of a singularly entire realisation of that image, such as makes these lines of Coleridge, for instance, "imaginative " --

"Amid the howl of more than wintry storms,
The halcyon hears the voice of vernal hours
Already on the wing."

¶24
§179 There are many such figures both in Coleridge's verse and prose. §180 He has, too, his passages of that sort of impassioned contemplation on the permanent and elementary conditions of nature and humanity, which Wordsworth held to be the essence of a poet ; as it would be his proper function to awaken such contemplation in other men -- those " moments," as Coleridge says, addressing him --

{{Page 90}}

" Moments awful,
Now in thy inner life, and now abroad,
When power streamed from thee, and thy soul received
The light reflected, as a light bestowed."

§181 The entire poem from which these lines are taken, " composed on the night after Wordsworth's recitation of a poem on the growth of an individual mind," is, in its high-pitched strain of meditation, and in the combined justice and elevation of its philosophical expression --

"high and passionate thoughts
To their own music chanted :"

wholly sympathetic with The Prelude which it celebrates, and of which the subject is, in effect, the generation of the spirit of the " Lake poetry." §182 The Lines to Joseph Cottle have the same philosophically imaginative character ; the Ode to Dejection being Coleridge's most sustained effort of this kind.

¶25
§183 It is in a highly sensitive apprehension of the aspects of external nature that Coleridge identifies himself most closely with one of the main tendencies of the " Lake School"; a tendency instinctive, and no mere matter of theory, in him as in Wordsworth. §184 That record of the

"green light
Which lingers in the west,"

and again, of

{{Page 91}}

"the western sky,
And its peculiar tint of yellow green,"

which Byron found ludicrously untrue, but which surely needs no defence, is a characteristic example of a singular watchfulness for the minute fact and expression of natural scenery pervading all he wrote -- a closeness to the exact physiognomy of nature, having something to do with that idealistic philosophy which sees in the external world no mere concurrence of mechanical agencies, but an animated body, informed and made expressive, like the body of man, by an indwelling intelligence. §185 It was a tendency, doubtless, in the air, for Shelley too is affected by it, and Turner, with the school of landscape which followed him. §186 " I had found," Coleridge tells us,

" That outward forms, the loftiest, still receive
Their finer influence from the world within ;
Fair ciphers of vague import, where the eye
Traces no spot, in which the heart may read
History and prophecy : . . ."

and this induces in him no indifference to actual colour and form and process, but such minute realism as this --

" The thin grey cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky.
The moon is behind and at the full ;
And yet she looks both small and dull ;" {{Page 92}}

or this, which has a touch of "romantic" weirdness --

" Nought was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe :"

or this --

" There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky :"

or this, with a weirdness, again, like that of some wild French etcher --

" Lo ! the new-moon winter-bright !
And overspread with phantom light
(With swimming phantom light o'erspread,
But rimmed and circled with a silver thread)
I see the old moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming on of rain and squally blast."

§187 He has a like imaginative apprehension of the silent and unseen processes of nature, its " ministries " of dew and frost, for instance ; as when he writes, in April --

"A balmy night ! and though the stars be dim,
Yet let us think upon the vernal showers
That gladden the green earth, and we shall find
A pleasure in the dimness of the stars."

§188 Of such imaginative treatment of landscape there is no better instance than the description of The Dell, in Fears in Solitude --

{{Page 93}}

" A green and silent spot amid the hills,
A small and silent dell ! O'er stiller place
No singing skylark ever poised himself -- "
" But the dell,
Bathed by the mist is fresh and delicate
As vernal cornfield, or the unripe flax
When, through its half-transparent stalks, at eve,
The level sunshine glimmers with green light : --

" The gust that roared and died away
To the distant tree --

" heard and only heard
In this low dell, bowed not the delicate grass."

¶26
§189 This curious insistence of the mind on one particular spot, till it seems to attain actual expression and a sort of soul in it -- a mood so characteristic of the " Lake School " -- occurs in an earnest political poem, " written in April 1798, during the alarm of an invasion " ; and that silent dell is the background against which the tumultuous fears of the poet are in strong relief, while the quiet sense of the place, maintained all through them, gives a true poetic unity to the piece. §190 Good political poetry -- political poetry that shall be permanently moving -- can, perhaps, only be written on motives which, for those they concern, have ceased to be open questions, and are really beyond argument ; while Coleridge's political poems are for the most part on open questions. §191 For although it was a great part of his intellectual {{Page 94}} ambition to subject political questions to the action of the fundamental ideas of his philosophy, he was nevertheless an ardent partisan, first on one side, then on the other, of the actual politics proper to the end of the last and the beginning of the present century, where there is still room for much difference of opinion. §192 Yet The Destiny of Nations, though formless as a whole, and unfinished, presents many traces of his most elevated manner of speculation, cast into that sort of imaginative philosophical expression, in which, in effect, the language itself is inseparable from, or essentially a part of, the thought. §193 France, an Ode, begins with a famous apostrophe to Liberty --

" Ye Clouds ! that far above me float and pause,
Whose pathless march no mortal may control !
Ye Ocean-waves ! that wheresoe'er ye roll,
Yield homage only to eternal laws !
Ye Woods ! that listen to the night-bird's singing,
Midway the smooth and perilous slope reclined,
Save when your own imperious branches swinging,
Have made a solemn music of the wind !
Where like a man beloved of God,
Through glooms which never woodman trod,
How oft, pursuing fancies holy,
My moonlight way o'er flowering weeds I wound,
Inspired, beyond the guess of folly,
By each rude shape and wild unconquerable sound !
O ye loud Waves ! and O ye Forests high !
And O ye Clouds that far above me soar'd !

{{Page 95}}

Thou rising Sun ! thou blue rejoicing Sky !
Yea, everything that is and will be free !
Bear witness for me, wheresoe'er ye be,
With what deep worship I have still adored
The spirit of divinest liberty."

§194 And the whole ode, though, after Coleridge's way, not quite equal to that exordium, is an example of strong national sentiment, partly in indignant reaction against his own earlier sympathy with the French Republic, inspiring a composition which, in spite of some turgid lines, really justifies itself as poetry, and has that true unity of effect which the ode requires. §195 Liberty, after all his hopes of young France, is only to be found in nature : --

" Thou speedest on thy subtle pinions,
The guide of homeless winds, and playmate of the waves !"

¶27
§196 In his changes of political sentiment, Coleridge was associated with the " Lake School " ; and there is yet one other very different sort of sentiment in which he is one with that school, yet all himself, his sympathy, namely, with the animal world. §197 That was a sentiment connected at once with the love of outward nature in himself and in the " Lake School," and its assertion of the natural affections in their simplicity ; with the homeliness and pity, consequent upon that assertion. §198 The Lines to a Young Ass, tethered --

{{Page 96}}

" Where the close-eaten grass is scarcely seen,
While sweet around her waves the tempting green,"

which had seemed merely whimsical in their day, indicate a vein of interest constant in Coleridge's poems, and at its height in his greatest poems -- in Christabel, where it has its effect, as it were antipathetically, in the vivid realisation of the serpentine element in Geraldine's nature ; and in The Ancient Mariner, whose fate is interwoven with that of the wonderful bird, at whose blessing of the water-snakes the curse for the death of the albatross passes away, and where the moral of the love of all creatures, as a sort of religious duty, is definitely expressed.

¶28
§199 Christabel, though not printed till 1816, was written mainly in the year 1797 : The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner was printed as a contribution to the Lyrical Ballads in 1798 ; and these two poems belong to the great year of Coleridge's poetic production, his twenty-fifth year. §200 In poetic quality, above all in that most poetic of all qualities, a keen sense of, and delight in beauty, the infection of which lays hold upon the reader, they are quite out of proportion to all his other compositions. §201 The form in both is that of the ballad, with some of its terminology, and some also of its quaint conceits. §202 They connect themselves with that revival of ballad literature, of which Percy's Relics, and, in another way, {{Page 97}} Macpherson's Ossian are monuments, and which afterwards so powerfully affected Scott --

" Young-eyed poesy
All deftly masked as hoar antiquity."

¶29
§203 The Ancient Mariner, as also, in its measure, Christabel, is a " romantic " poem, impressing us by bold invention, and appealing to that taste for the supernatural, that longing for le frisson, a shudder, to which the " romantic " school in Germany, and its derivations in England and France, directly ministered. §204 In Coleridge, personally, this taste had been encouraged by his odd and out-of-the-way reading in the old-fashioned literature of the marvellous -- books like Purchas's Pilgrims, early voyages like Hakluyt's, old naturalists and visionary moralists, like Thomas Burnet, from whom he quotes the motto of The Ancient Mariner, " Facile credo, plures esse naturas invisibiles quam visibiles in rerum universitate, |etc.| " §205 Fancies of the strange things which may very well happen, even in broad daylight, to men shut up alone in ships far off on the sea, seem to have occurred to the human mind in all ages with a peculiar readiness, and often have about them, from the story of the stealing of Dionysus downwards, the fascination of a certain dreamy grace, which distinguishes them from other kinds of marvellous inventions. §206 This sort of fascination The Ancient Mariner brings to its {{Page 98}} highest degree : it is the delicacy, the dreamy grace, in his presentation of the marvellous, which makes Coleridge's work so remarkable. §207 The too palpable intruders from a spiritual world in almost all ghost literature, in Scott and Shakespeare even, have a kind of crudity or coarseness. §208 Coleridge's power is in the very fineness with which, as by some really ghostly finger, he brings home to our inmost sense his inventions, daring as they are -- the skeleton ship, the polar spirit, the inspiriting of the dead corpses of the ship's crew. §209 The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner has the plausibility, the perfect adaptation to reason and the general aspect of life, which belongs to the marvellous, when actually presented as part of a credible experience in our dreams. §210 Doubtless, the mere experience of the opium-eater, the habit he must almost necessarily fall into of noting the more elusive phenomena of dreams, had something to do with that : in its essence, however, it is connected with a more purely intellectual circumstance in the development of Coleridge's poetic gift. §211 Some one once asked William Blake, to whom Coleridge has many resemblances, when either is at his best (that whole episode of the re-inspiriting of the ship's crew in The Ancient Mariner being comparable to Blake's well-known design of the " Morning Stars singing together ") whether he had ever seen a ghost, and was surprised {{Page 99}} when the famous seer, who ought, one might think, to have seen so many, answered frankly, " Only once !" §212 His " spirits," at once more delicate, and so much more real, than any ghost -- the burden, as they were the privilege, of his temperament -- like it, were an integral element in his everyday life. §213 And the difference of mood expressed in that question and its answer, is indicative of a change of temper in regard to the supernatural which has passed over the whole modern mind, and of which the true measure is the influence of the writings of Swedenborg. §214 What that change is we may see if we compare the vision by which Swedenborg was " called," as he thought, to his work, with the ghost which called Hamlet, or the spells of Marlowe's Faust with those of Goethe's. §215 The modern mind, so minutely self-scrutinising, if it is to be affected at all by a sense of the supernatural, needs to be more finely touched than was possible in the older, romantic presentment of it. §216 The spectral object, so crude, so impossible, has become plausible, as

" The blot upon the brain,
That will show itself without ;"

and is understood to be but a condition of one's own mind, for which, according to the scepticism, latent at least, in so much of our modern philosophy, the {{Page 100}} so-called real things themselves are but spectra after all.

¶30
§217 It is this finer, more delicately marvellous super-naturalism, fruit of his more delicate psychology, that Coleridge infuses into romantic adventure, itself also then a new or revived thing in English literature ; and with a fineness of weird effect in The Ancient Mariner, unknown in those older, more simple, romantic legends and ballads. §218 It is a flower of medieval or later German romance, growing up in the peculiarly compounded atmosphere of modern psychological speculation, and putting forth in it wholly new qualities. §219 The quaint prose commentary, which runs side by side with the verse of The Ancient Mariner, illustrates this -- a composition of quite a different shade of beauty and merit from that of the verse which it accompanies, connecting this, the chief poem of Coleridge, with his philosophy, and emphasising therein that psychological interest of which I have spoken, its curious soul-lore.

¶31
§220 Completeness, the perfectly rounded wholeness and unity of the impression it leaves on the mind of a reader who fairly gives himself to it -- that, too, is one of the characteristics of a really excellent work, in the poetic as in every other kind of art ; and by this completeness, The Ancient Mariner certainly gains upon Christabel -- a completeness, entire as that {{Page 101}} of Wordsworth's Leech-gatherer, or Keats's Saint Agnes' Eve, each typical in its way of such wholeness or entirety of effect on a careful reader. §221 It is Coleridge's one great complete work, the one really finished thing, in a life of many beginnings. §222 Christabel remained a fragment. §223 In The Ancient Mariner this unity is secured in part by the skill with which the incidents of the marriage-feast are made to break in dreamily from time to time upon the main story. §224 And then, how pleasantly, how reassuringly, the whole nightmare story itself is made to end, among the clear fresh sounds and lights of the bay, where it began, with

" The moon-light steeped in silentness,
The steady weather-cock."

¶33
§225 So different from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner in regard to this completeness of effect, Christabel illustrates the same complexion of motives, a like intellectual situation. §226 Here, too, the work is of a kind peculiar to one who touches the characteristic motives of the old romantic ballad, with a spirit made subtle and fine by modern reflection ; as we feel, I think, in such passages as --

" But though my slumber had gone by,
This dream it would not pass away --
It seems to live upon mine eye ;" --

and --

" For she, belike, hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep ;" --

{{Page 102}}

and again --

" With such perplexity of mind
As dreams too lively leave behind."

¶34
§227 And that gift of handling the finer passages of human feeling, at once with power and delicacy, which was another result of his finer psychology, of his exquisitely refined habit of self-reflection, is illustrated by a passage on Friendship in the Second Part --

"Alas ! they had been friends in youth ;
But whispering tongues can poison truth ;
And constancy lives in realms above ;
And life is thorny ; and youth is vain ;
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain.
And thus it chanced, as I divine,
With Roland and Sir Leoline.
Each spake words of high disdain
And insult to his heart's best brother :
They parted -- ne'er to meet again !
But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining --
They stood aloof the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder ;
A dreary sea now flows between ;
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been."

¶35
§228 I suppose these lines leave almost every reader with a quickened sense of the beauty and compass of {{Page 103}} human feeling ; and it is the sense of such richness and beauty which, in spite of his " dejection," in spite of that burden of his morbid lassitude, accompanies Coleridge himself through life. §229 A warm poetic joy in everything beautiful, whether it be a moral sentiment, like the friendship of Roland and Leoline, or only the flakes of falling light from the water-snakes -- this joy, visiting him, now and again, after sickly dreams, in sleep or waking, as a relief not to be forgotten, and with such a power of felicitous expression that the infection of it passes irresistibly to the reader -- such is the predominant element in the matter of his poetry, as cadence is the predominant quality of its form. §230 "We bless thee for our creation !" he might have said, in his later period of definite religious assent, " because the world is so beautiful : the world of ideas -- living spirits, detached from the divine nature itself, to inform and lift the heavy mass of material things ; the world of man, above all in his melodious and intelligible speech ; the world of living creatures and natural scenery ; the world of dreams." §231 What he really did say, by way of A Tombless Epitaph, is true enough of himself --

" Sickness, 'tis true,
Whole years of weary days, besieged him close,
Even to the gates and inlets of his life !
But it is true, no less, that strenuous, firm,

{{Page 104}}

And with a natural gladness, he maintained
The citadel unconquered, and in joy
Was strong to follow the delightful Muse.
For not a hidden path, that to the shades
Of the beloved Parnassian forest leads,
Lurked undiscovered by him ; not a rill
There issues from the fount of Hippocrene,
But he had traced it upward to its source,
Through open glade, dark glen, and secret dell,
Knew the gay wild flowers on its banks, and culled
Its med'cinable herbs. Yea, oft alone,
Piercing the long-neglected holy cave,
The haunt obscure of old Philosophy,
He bade with lifted torch its starry walls
Sparkle, as erst they sparkled to the flame
Of odorous lamps tended by saint and sage.
O framed for calmer times and nobler hearts !
O studious Poet, eloquent for truth !
Philosopher ! contemning wealth and death,
Yet docile, childlike, full of Life and Love."

¶36
§232 The student of empirical science asks, Are absolute principles attainable? §233 What are the limits of knowledge? §234 The answer he receives from science itself is not ambiguous. §235 What the moralist asks is, Shall we gain or lose by surrendering human life to the relative spirit? §236 Experience answers that the dominant tendency of life is to turn ascertained truth into a dead letter to make us all the phlegmatic servants of routine. §237 The relative spirit, by its con-{{Page 105}} stant dwelling on the more fugitive conditions or circumstances of things, breaking through a thousand rough and brutal classifications, and giving elasticity to inflexible principles, begets an intellectual finesse of which the ethical result is a delicate and tender justice in the criticism of human life. §238 Who would gain more than Coleridge by criticism in such a spirit? We know how his life has appeared when judged by absolute standards. §239 We see him trying to "apprehend the absolute," to stereotype forms of faith and philosophy, to attain, as he says, "fixed principles" in politics, morals, and religion, to fix one mode of life as the essence of life, refusing to see the parts as parts only ; and all the time his own pathetic history pleads for a more elastic moral philosophy than his, and cries out against every formula less living and flexible than life itself.

¶37
§240 " From his childhood he hungered for eternity." There, after all, is the incontestable claim of Coleridge. §241 The perfect flower of any elementary type of life must always be precious to humanity, and Coleridge is a true flower of the ennuyé, of the type of René. §242 More than Childe Harold, more than Werther, more than René himself, Coleridge, by what he did, what he was, and what he failed to do, represents that inexhaustible discontent, languor, and home-sickness, that endless regret, the chords of which ring all through {{Page 106}} our modern literature. §243 It is to the romantic element in literature that those qualities belong. §244 One day, perhaps, we may come to forget the distant horizon, with full knowledge of the situation, to be content with " what is here and now "; and herein is the essence of classical feeling. §245 But by us of the present moment, certainly -- by us for whom the Greek spirit, with its engaging naturalness, simple, chastened, debonair, truph{ee}s, abrot{ee}tos, chlid{ee}s, charit{o}n, imeron, pothon pat{ee}r, is itself the Sangrail of an endless pilgrimage, Coleridge,with his passion for the absolute, for something fixed where all is moving, his faintness, his broken memory, his intellectual disquiet, may still be ranked among the interpreters of one of the constituent elements of our life.

1865, 1880.


Copytext: Appreciations (London: Macmillan and Co., and New York, 1890): 64-106.
Source: the same.
Ed. (text): Ian Lancashire, Rep. Criticism On-line (1996).

Editorial Conventions

This edition does not include the text of signatures, page numbers, or catchwords. Old spelling is retained except for ligatured letters, which are normalized. Contractions and abbreviations are placed within vertical bars. Italics and lineation are retained, but not small capitals and the text of catchwords, signatures, and running titles. Original lineation and irregularities in spacing are ignored. Reference citations are by page numbers and editorial through-text paragraph and sentence numbers.


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