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AMoNG the most eminent of the illustrious band of those whose intellect and imagination have conferred imperishable fame upon themselves, and done honour to English literature in the present century, stands, in the highest rank, the name of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That surpassing spirit has passed away to his own high place, and the mourners— the mourners of the heart—go about the streets; but yet it is not quite without a sense of comfort, a feeling like that of remembered happiness, pleasant though mournful to the soul, that an ardent admirer of his worth and genius seeks, in this brief, imperfect memoir of his life and writings, to hang, as it were, a garland on his honoured tomb, and with glistening eye to record that
“To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die.”
Mr. Coleridge was born at the vicarage of Ottery Saint Mary, a town of Devonshire, about ten miles from Exeter, in the year 1773. His father, the Rev. John Coleridge, vicar of the parish, had been previously a schoolmaster at South Molton. He was a ripe and able scholar: he assisted Dr. Kennicot in the famous collation of so many hundred manuscripts for his edition of the Hebrew Bible; wrote a theological dissertation on the Aoyoc, and published a Latin grammar. He died about the year 1782, at an advanced age, leaving a numerous family, of which the subject of this memoir was the youngest son.
Owing to the straitened circumstances of his father, and the being left an orphan at so early an age, the poet, like many distinguished men of his time, was educated at the school of Christ’s Hospital, London. The account which he gives of his progress in learning, and his feelings while a student at that excellent seminary, is highly characteristic of the bent of his mind, and proves the aphorism of Wordsworth, that “the child is father of the man.” Although, at a very premature age, even before his fifteenth year, he had bewildered himself in the mazes of metaphysical and theological controversy, his early poetry, and he had barely passed the verge of manhood when he first o particularly distinguished in many passages, though not throughout, by an exquisite simpleness both of thought and expression. He himself says–
“During several years of my youth and early manhood, I reverenced those who re-introduced the manly simplicity of the Grecian and of our own elder poets, with such enthusiasm as made the hope seem presumptuous of writing successfully in the same style. Perhaps a similar process has happened to others; but my earliest poems were marked by an ease and simplicity which I have studied, perhaps with inferior success, to impress upon my later compositions.
“At school, I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time a very severe master*. He early moulded my taste to the preference of Demosthenes to Cicero, of Homer and Theocritus to Virgil, and again of Virgil to Ovid. He habituated me to compare Lucretius,
* The Rev. James Bowyer, many years head-master of the grammar-school, Christ's Hospital.
Terence, and above all the chaste poems of Catullus, not only with the
“In my friendless wanderings on our leave-days, (for I was an orphan and
This preposterous pursuit was beyond doubt injurious both to my natural powers and to the progress of my education. It would perhaps have proved ove had it been continued, but from this I was auspiciously withdrawn.” -
It was owing to a present made him by a beloved schoolfellow (Middleton, afterwards Bishop of Calcutta, and author of a treatise on the Greek article which contains one of the best vindications of the Christian Scriptures from the glosses of Unitarian commentators extant) of a copy of Bowles's Sonnets, then just published, that Coleridge, in his seventeenth year, was again attracted to the charms of poetry, and drawn away from theological controversy and wild metaphysics. “Nothing else,” said he, “at this time, pleased me: history and particular facts lost all interest in my mind.” Even fiction had become insipid ; all his thoughts were directed to his favourite metaphysical and theological mysticisms, until Bowles's Sonnets, and an intimacy with a very
agreeable family, recalled him to less thorny paths, and to more rational, or at least more practical, pursuits. In consequence of the low state of his finances, he transcribed these sonnets no fewer than forty times in the course of a few months, in order to make presents of them to his companions; and his admiration of them led to the acquaintance and lasting friendship of their excellent author.
At eighteen, he was entered, from Christ's Hospital, of Jesus College, Cambridge. He did not obtain, and apparently never sought for, academic honours. He assisted a friend in composing an essay on English poetry while at the University, or at least in one of the vacations, and occasionally indulged his fancy in poetical composition, which he seems to have commenced with a view to the permanent cultivation of the “faculty divine,” soon after his first perusal of the before-mentioned sonnets of Bowles.
At this period of his life he was remarkable for excess of animal spirits, and for some of the noisy follies to which in boyhood they are apt to give rise, but, like most persons of similar temperament, he was also subject to fits of corresponding depression. In the autumn of 1793, while labouring under one of these visitations of despondency, aggravated by the combined effects of pecuniary embarrassment and hopeless love of a young lady, sister of a schoolfellow with whose family he had become intimate, he set off for London with a party of fellow-collegians, and after spending a short time in Bacchanalian conviviality with his companions, left them to wander by himself about the streets, in a state of destitution similar to that endured by Johnson and Savage, and in a frame of mind approaching to the frenzy of despair. This is touchingly alluded to in his monody on the death of Chatterton. He finished by enlisting in the 15th Dragoons, under the name of Clumberbacht, but he could not be taught to ride. He continued for some time, however, a subject of mystery and wonder to his comrades, and of curiosity even to his officers, until the surgeon of the regiment happening by chance to light upon a complaint of the unhappy trooper over the misery of his condition, couched in the most classical Latinity, an inquiry was instituted, the result of which was, that his friends were written to, and his discharge procured.
At the age of twenty-one, he first published a small volume of poems, which, though occasionally clouded with obscurities, and abounding in double epithets, and other faults of a turgid. and inflated style, almost inseparable from the unpruned luxuriance of a very youthful composer, afforded sure indication of a golden harvest to come, and were very favourably received as buds of hope which gave promise of “bright consummate flowers” in due season. In the same year, while residing at Bristol, he published, in conjunction with Southey, “The Fall of Robespierre, an Historic Drama.” The extraordinary rapidity with which this dramatic poem was composed renders the vigour, talent, and ability it displays still more remarkable. The two friends commenced one evening after tea; by noon, next day, the manuscript was finished; it was in type by sunset, and was published the following morning. In the ensuing winter (1794-5) Coleridge delivered, at Bristol, a course of lectures on the French Revolution. That great flame had by this time kindled all Europe, and if the smell of fire had passed upon Coleridge, he could at least point to many, or most; of the choicest and best of the spirits of the age, as men who were with him in the furnace.
Southey and Robert Lovell were his ardent coadjutors' in an enthusiastic scheme of American Pantisocracy. In the midst, however, of the harmless, but Utopian dream of the youthful triumvirate, their “simple plan” was broken up by the three philanthropic philosophers falling all at once up to the heart in love with three sisters named Fricker, resident at Bristol. It appears that none of the fair sisterhood, nor any of their fellow-parishioners, saw “cause or just impediment wherefore these couples should not respectively be joined together in holy matrimony;” and, instead of the cause of political regeneration in the wilds of Susquehanna, Mr. Coleridge espoused Miss Sarah Fricker in the autumn of 1795. Thus began the business of life, and Coleridge became a breeder of sinners, and added to the Adam-tainted population of the old world instead of giving birth to a purer era than the realities of our fallen nature admit of in the new. Hartley, Berkley, and Derwent Coleridge were born of this marriage. With that inconsequence, however, which so often marked his conduct in worldly matters, Mr. Coleridge had married before he possessed the means of supporting a family. During his residence at Nether Stowey, a village near Bridgewater, in Somersetshire, he depended chiefly, or altogether, for the maintenance of himself, and of those far dearer to him than himself, upon the scanty and uncertain remuneration of his literary labours. In the Preface to his first publication, the juvenile poems before alluded to, he had written– “I expect neither profit nor general fame by my writings; and I consider myself as having been amply repaid without either. Poetry has been to me its own “exceeding great reward: it has soothed my afflictions ; it has multiplied and refined my enjoyments ; it has endeared solitude ; and it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and the beautiful in all that meets and that surrounds me.” Soon after this, however, he had commenced a weekly paper called the “Watchman,” and his journeyings to and fro, and the rebuffs he met with in search of subscribers to this periodical, as well as the history of its subsequent fate, are graphically and most amusingly related by himself. From his memorable tour Coleridge returned mortified, and convinced, indeed, that prudence dictated the abandonment of the scheme; but partly for this very reason he seems to have persevered in it, for he confesses that he was then so completely hag-ridden by the fear of being influenced by selfish motives, that to know any given mode of conduct to be the dictate of prudence was a sort of proof presumptive to his feelings that the contrary was the dictate of duty. In the very first few numbers of his periodical, he made enemies of all his Jacobin and democratic patrons; for, utterly disgusted by their infidelity and profaneness, and by their adoption of French morals with what he scornfully designates the French psilosophy, instead of abusing the government and aristocracy, as had been expected of him, he levelled his powerful pen at “modern patriotism;” defended the sedition, or gagging, bills, as they were called; and proclaimed open war upon the demagogues who declaimed to the needy and ignorant, instead of pleading for them. At the same time he avowed his conviction that national education and a concurring spread of the Gospel were the indispensable conditions of any true political amelioration. At the ninth number the work was dropped for want of sale; and,
but for the assistance of a dear and faithful friend, Coleridge must have been thrown into gaol at the suit of his Bristol printer, to whom he owed between eighty and ninety pounds. He then, as has been before intimated, retired to a cottage at the foot of Quantock, devoted his studies to the foundations of religion and morals, and provided for his scanty maintenance by writing verses for a London morning paper. Here, also, and about the year 1797, he wrote, at the desire of Sheridan, a tragedy originally named “Osorio,” but which was not brought out until the year 1813, and under the title of “Remorse.” It was generally felt by Coleridge's friends, though not, as far as the writer is aware, complained of by the poet himself, that Mr. Sheridan had not behaved well about this tragedy. From some cause or other, whether the press of other affairs and difficulties of his own, or ceasing to have the potential voice in theatrical matters he had been wont to exercise, or, as was sometimes thought, from the mere waywardness and caprice of genius, certain it is that he never realised to Coleridge the reasonable hope which he had excited of friendship and patronage in bringing forward his play under the most favourable auspices. During his residence at Stowey, Coleridge was in the habit of preaching every Sunday at the Unitarian chapel at Taunton, but was greatly respected by even the better class of his neighbours. He enjoyed the intimate friendship of Wordsworth, who lived at Allfoxden, about two miles from Stowey, and was visited by Charles Lamb, the late John Thelwall the lecturer, and other men of cultivated minds and fertile imagination. Here, also, he planned “The Brook,” a poem, which, like “Christabel,” he never felt himself “i' the vein” to bring to a successful completion. The following year (1798) he was enabled by the liberality of the late Thomas Wedgewood, who settled on him a pension of 100l. a-year, to visit Germany. He proceeded thither in company with Wordsworth, studied the language at Ratzeburg, and afterwards went on to Göttingen. He there attended the lectures of Blumenbach on natural history and physiology, studied a fellow-student’s notes of Eichhorn’s prelections on the New Testament, and took lessons of Professor Tychssen in the Gothic grammar. He read also the Minnesingers (or Swabian troubadours), and the verses of Hans Sachs, the Nuremberg cobbler; devoting the principal part of his time, however, to general literature and to philosophy. Whilst here, also, our author was introduced to Klopstock, and he gives a curious account in the “Biographia Literaria” of his disappointment in the heavy, dull, unexpressive appearance of the author of the “Messiah.” But the whole of his residence in Germany is full of interest, and may, perhaps, justify some further notice of it in a future paper. On his return from that country he went to reside at Keswick. He had now made great and most important additions to his former stock of knowledge, and he seems to have spared no time or pains to store up what was useful, whether as practical or speculative. He had become thoroughly master of most of the early German writers, and familiar with the state of early German literature. He drank deeply of the wells of the Teutonic mystical philosophy, and in this the predilections of his earlier years naturally came upon him in aid of his researches into a labyrinth which no human ingenuity ever did, or probably ever will, explore successfully. But here, also, the most important of all possible