Obrázky na stránke

Alike from Priestcraft's harpy minions
And factious Blasphemy's obscener slaves
Thou speedest on thy subtle pinions,

The guide of homeless winds and playmates of the waves.
"And there I felt thee! on that sea-cliff's verge
Whose pines, scarce travell'd by the breeze above,
Had made one murmur with the distant surge!
Yes! while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,
And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,
Possessing all things with intensest love,
O Liberty, my spirit felt thee there."

In considering the literary influences of the French Revolution, and the expression of feelings awakened at the time, I have passed over the earlier development of Coleridge's genius. If ever mortal could be said to have been endowed supereminently with genius as distinguished from talents, it was that frail though pure and tender-hearted, aspiring, wayward being, the poet, the philosopher, Coleridge. He is one of the poets who, like Milton and Cowper and Southey, are honourably known also by their prose writings. Indeed, it will probably be to the philosophical works of Coleridge that a deeper gratitude will be due than to his poetry, while whatever popular fame may attach to his memory will be the acquisition of his poems. One spirit, indeed, pervades all his productions; one intellectual character is stamped upon them all, only modified by the subjects. The great moral element of his genius was a perpetual thirsting after truth,—ideal truth. The most striking traits of his intellectual character are imaginative powers of wonderful originality combined with habits of profound meditation. These powers were unhappily under the government of only an undisciplined will, and the movements of his mind were fitful, wayward, and incomplete. His wisdom is scattered in fragments, in recollections of his eloquent discourse, and often in notes written on the margins of books; and from these various quarters it has been gleaned by the dutiful and affectionate hands of his disciples. His life was afflicted with almost life-long disease, the wretchedness of which first drove him to a remedy which soon multiplied many-fold his burdens, a suicidal use of opium,-a long-continued habit, at last, however, conquered; and it has been said by those who best knew him, that his long and passionate struggles and final victory over this infirmity are among the brightest as well as most interesting traits of the moral and religious being of this humble, this exalted Christian. In his personal career he enjoyed as little of worldly prosperity as he possessed little of worldly wisdom; but it resembled poor Cowper's course of life in this :-that one kind friend was raised



up after another affectionately to shelter and cherish a man who, with all his grasp of intellect, with all his tenderness of feeling, was sadly unfitted for many of the responsibilities of life. When he placed himself, in the almost-despairing hope of breaking his opium habits, under the care of a physician, being received an inmate in his family, this connection, beginning in little more than a professional visit, lasted for near twenty years, in fact, during the remainder of his life; for he spent the rest of his years under the roof of his magnanimous friend, his medical adviser. The great purpose to which he conceived that the faculties of his mind were dedicated was his philosophy, an end always in his view, and in his hopes always reached after but never attained,the reconciliation of philosophy with Christian religion. It was one of his last regrets that his life and strength were not spared to him to complete his philosophy. "For," said he, as God hears me, the originating, continuing, and sustaining wish and design in my heart was to exalt the glory of his name; and, which is the same thing in other words, to promote the improvement of mankind." It is not for me now, even if I possessed the ability, to dwell upon the philosophical writings of Coleridge; and I pass from them, therefore, with this one remark:that when I recall the many passages adorned with rich and verdant imagery, their enthusiastic, and, as it were, triumphant eloquence, mighty not only in self-communion and a profound reverence for God's written word, but in the long-sustained flow of his sonorous sentences, and all consecrated to the cause of Christianity, thoughts and images and words come across the spirit, not as if from one man, but rather like the waving of the palm-branches and the many-toned voice of an adoring multitude.


The prose writings of Coleridge which are more appropriate for me to allude to before resuming the consideration of his poetical character are his critical papers. I know of no English writer who has given his thoughts to the criticism of imaginative literature, combining so much ability to the task. It is in the spirit of poetry that poetry must be criticised; the might of imagination and its laws are best realized and expounded by imagination itself: indeed, the perfect enjoyment of poetry arises only where there is an active sympathy between the imagination of the poet and the reader. It is the dearth of imaginative energy that makes so much of criticism mere lifeless disquisition. When the poets fall into the guardianship of some unimaginative, fancyless critic, he sets them before you like so many caged birds, their eyes dimmed with the loss of their native freedom, and wings drooping or beating against their bars, or even like the stuffed dead forms in glass cases, instead of pointing to the imagination of the poet resting on some lofty


perch that nature gives, or "soaring the air," winging its flight athwart the blue sky, as full of gladness and as free of heaven," and thus a portion of the poet's own vision is caught, and, the beholder's

"Senses gradually wrapt

In a half sleep, he'll dream of better worlds,
And dreaming hear thee still, O singing lark,
That singest like an angel in the clouds."

To the arduous work of poetical criticism Coleridge brought a mind at once poetical and philosophical,—all the original instincts of poetry, creative power with an exquisite sense of the rhythm of language, and deep reflection on the principles of the art. The best criticism on Shakspeare is that which Coleridge has left; for he "had," as has been well said, "for understanding the great dramatist the two powers which are scarcely less mighty in our intellectual than in our moral and spiritual life,—faith and love :-a boundless faith in Shakspeare's truth, and a love for him akin to that with which philosophers study the works of nature, shrinking from no labour for the sake of getting at a satisfactory solution, and always distrusting themselves until they have found one, in a firm confidence that wisdom will infallibly be justified of her children." There is a passage of his prose-a very high-wrought piece of fancy-in which Coleridge expresses his modest consciousness of his own poetical endowment, and his reverential homage to those whose imagination he contemplated as bearing them on higher and longer-sustained flights. It is a singularly imaginative piece of prose composition, and very characteristic of the author

"I have too clearly before me the idea of a poet's genius to deem myself other than a very humble poet; but, in the very possession of the idea, I know myself so far a poet as to feel assured that I can understand and interpret a poem in the spirit of poetry and with a poet's spirit. Like the ostrich, I cannot fly; yet I have wings that give me the feeling of flight, and, as I sweep along the plain, can look up towards the bird of Jove, and can follow him and say, 'Sovereign of the air, who descendest on thy nest in the cleft of the inaccessible rock, who makest the mountain-pinnacle thy perch and halting-place, and, scanning with steady eye the orb of glory right above thee, imprintest thy lordly talons in the stainless snows that shoot back and scatter round his glittering shafts, I pay thee homage. Thou art my king. I give honour due to the vulture, the falcon, and all thy noble baronage; and no less to the lowly bird, the skylark, whom thou permittest to visit thy court and chant her matin song within its cloudy curtains: yea, the linnet, the thrush, the swallow, are my brethren. But still I am a bird, though



but a bird of the earth. Monarch of our kind, I am a bird even as thou; and I have shed plumes which have added beauty to the beautiful and grace to terror, waving over the maiden's brow and on the helmed head of the warrior chief; and majesty to grief, drooping o'er the car of death!"

The juvenile poems of Coleridge were remarkably prophetic of his future powers. In fact, his whole character was typified in his youth : the child was indeed the father of the man. The wild imagination, the mastery over metrical melody, the thoughtfulness, the magic powers of discourse, all were there. His schoolmate and lifelong friend, Charles Lamb, recalling the days spent many years before in that famous London school, the noble foundation of good King Edward VI., thus apostrophizes the "inspired charity-boy." "Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Logician, Metaphysician, Bard:-how often have I seen the casual passer through the cloisters stand still, entranced with admiration to hear thee unfold in thy deep and sweet intonations the mysteries of Iamblicus or Plotinus, or reciting Homer in his Greek, or Pindar, while the walls of the old Grey-Friars' echoed to the accents of the inspired charity-boy." The day-dreams that filled so large a portion of the visionary Coleridge's existence, they too began in early life. The story is told of him when quite a child, going down the Strand (a crowded London thoroughfare), he was very earnestly thrusting his hands out, so as to come in contact with a person walking before him, who seized him and accused him of an attempt to pick his pocket. The little dreamer sobbed out his protestations of innocence, and, to the astonishment of the bystanders, explained how he thought himself Leander swimming across the Hellespont.

I may cite an instance of the early force of Coleridge's imagination from his monody on the death of Chatterton. The wondrous career of that young poet, and the melancholy close of it by suicide in boyhood, were then fresh recollections. Nature had beautifully endowed him, and the world by a wicked harshness extinguished all light in a spirit already darkened with somewhat of the gloom of hereditary insanity. This earth was no home for him; and it is a fine stroke of imagination when Coleridge associates the chance knell from any distant steeple with the mother-voice of nature calling back the young and earth-hapless poet.

"Oh, what a wonder seems the fear of death,

Seeing how gladly we all sink to sleep,

Babes, children, youths, and men,

Night following night, for threescore years and ten.

But doubly strange where life is but a breath
To sigh and pant with up Want's rugged steep.



"Lo! by the grave I stand of one for whom
A prodigal nature and a niggard doom
(That all bestowing, this withholding all)
Made each chance knell, from distant spire or dome,
Sound like a seeking mother's anxious call:—
Return, poor child! home, weary truant, home!"



When Coleridge's genius was developing itself, he avowed a high admiration and gratitude to a poet somewhat his senior, though still surviving him,—one whose reputation has never been a general one, the poet Bowles, perhaps chiefly known by his controversy with Lord Byron on the subject of the poetry of Pope. Coleridge's admiration of Bowles's poems is not to be accounted for by any of that intensity of imagination which was eminently his own characteristic, but because he found in them something more real, more true and manly, than in most of the poetry then in fashion,—a combination of natural thoughts with natural diction. I can digress from my main subjects no longer than to give one short specimen of Bowles's poetry,—what strikes me as a well-told recollection of childhood, and what all who have experienced it will recognise as truly recording the impression made on the imagination on the occasion of a first approach to the ocean:

"I was a child when first I heard the sound

Of the Great Sea. 'T was night, and, journeying far,
We were belated on our road, 'mid scenes
New and unknown,--a mother and her child,
Now first in this wide world a wanderer.
My father came, the pastor of the church

That crowns the high hill-crest above the sea ;—
When, as the wheels went slow and the still night
Came down, a low, uncertain sound was heard,
Not like the wind. 'Listen!' my mother said,
'It is the sea! Listen! it is the sea!'

My head was resting on her lap; I woke;

I heard the sound, and closer prest her side.
Much of the sea, in tearful wonderment,
I oft had heard, and of the shipwreck'd man
Who sees, on some lone isle, day after day,
The sun sink o'er the solitude of waves,
Like Crusoe; and the tears would start afresh,
Whene'er my mother kiss'd my hair and told
The story of that desolate wild man,
And how the talking bird, when he return'd,

« PredošláPokračovať »