The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Scale How Tuesdays.
II. Coleridge.

By H. [Helen] E. Wix.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 104-111

[After graduating from Scale How, Helen Wix spent eight years as H.M.I. (Her Majesty's Inspector) and in 1929 became the first Headmistress of Overstone P.N.E.U. School until she retired in 1947. There is a 1930s photo of her at the Overstone website. She is seated in front.]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the youngest of thirteen children, was born on 21st October, 1772, at Ottery S. Mary, in Devonshire. His father was vicar and schoolmaster of the place, an interesting eccentric old gentleman; many amusing stories are told about his simple-mindedness. The villagers almost worshipped him, Thackeray tells us, and they thought all the Hebrew he quoted in his sermons was the direct voice of the Holy Ghost. Of Coleridge's mother we do not know much, except that she was of a practical, non-imaginative turn of mind, and she always seems to have disliked her youngest son. Coleridge never referred to his mother in after life; as soon as he left home, which was when he was ten, he seems to have broken off home connections as far as possible. He was sent to Christ Hospital soon after he left Ottery S. Mary. Here he does not seem to have been at all happy; it was a harsh place for so sensitive a child. But he made friends with some schoolfellows, afterwards, like himself, to become famous. [Thomas] Middleton, afterwards Bishop of Calcutta, was kind to him; Leigh Hunt, but especially Charles Lamb, were his friends. The head master of Christ Hospital, Dr. [Rev. James] Bowyer, though a stern disciplinarian, did much in forming good literary tastes in his boys. He hated cant and would not allow any conventional phraseology. Coleridge worked hard; he lived in his world of books. It is told of him that one day when he was walking down one of the crowded London streets, spreading out his arms, his hand accidentally found its way near an old gentleman's pocket. He, thinking that the boy meant to rob him, seized his hand and asked for an explanation. To his astonishment, Coleridge told him that he had been imagining he was Leander swimming the Hellespont and had forgotten where he was. The old gentleman was delighted, and in the end gave the boy a subscription to a library where he could go whenever he liked. While still at school Coleridge came across [William Lisle] Bowles' Sonnets, which, it is said, influenced him greatly. At the age of fifteen he went to Cambridge, and it was probably during his first year there that he wrote "Time Real and Imaginary" and "The Raven," in both of which we see foreshadowings of his peculiar genius as it appears in "The Ancient Mariner." In "The Raven" the love of animals leads to love of God and man, and in "Time Real and Imaginary" we are taken to a world of spirits. While Coleridge was still at Cambridge the French Revolution broke out, and he became a rank Republican. This begins the "Sturm und Drang" period of his life, and its influence is seen in such poems as "Religious Musings," and "The Destiny of Nations," written later. Coleridge left the University suddenly in 1793, penniless and without a degree. He went to London and enlisted in the Dragoons, under the name of Silas Comberbach. He did not make a good soldier; he often tumbled off of his horse, and he tells us the work gave him many a backache. Several stories are told about his discharge. [Thomas] De Quincey tells us [in Selected Writings, pg 168] that "Coleridge, as a private, mounted guard at the door of a room where his officers were giving a ball. Two of them had a dispute upon some Greek world. He interposed his authentic decision of the case. The officers stared as if one of their horses had sung 'Rule Britannia,' questioned him, heard his story, pitied his misfortune and finally subscribed to purchase his discharge." It must have been soon after this that Coleridge wrote "Lewti," where we find most exquisite beauty in some of the verses, suggesting rather "The Ancient Mariner."

Coleridge now went to Oxford where he met [Robert]Southey and Robt. Lovell. Together they formed the "Pantisocratical Scheme," by which a society was to be founded by them on the Susquehanna River in which all men were to be equal. But the plan was doomed not to prosper. Afterwards when the three friends met in Bristol, they discovered that between them they could not pay their fares out; it has even been said that Coleridge did not know where the Susquehanna River was! He suggested the place because its name was musical. Before this, the friends had married, each one of the Miss Frickers, of Bristol, [Robert Southey married Edith Fricker, Robert Lovell married Mary Fricker, and Coleridge married Sara Fricker.] and Mr. and Mrs. Coleridge had settled down in their cottage in Clevedon, which is so beautifully described by the poet in "A Quiet Place."

      "Low was our pretty cot: our tallest rose
      Peeped at the chamber window, we could hear
      At silent noon and eve and early morn,
      The sea's faint murmur. In the open air
      Our myrtles blossomed, and across the porch
      Thick jasmines twined; the little landscape round
      Was green and woody and refreshed the eye--
      It was a spot which you might aptly call
      The valley of seclusion."

Mrs. Coleridge was a happy young wife in those days, "an honest, simple, lively-minded, affectionate woman." Her husband worked hard contributing to the Morning Chronicle and other papers. He started The Watchman, but it was a failure. Soon afterwards (1796) he published his first volume of poems, but they attracted little attention. The next year he and his wife removed to Nether Stowey.

Here they were very happy; Coleridge writes--"Mrs. Coleridge loves Nether Stowey . . . our house is better than we expected . . . we have a pretty garden . . . and I am already an expert gardener and both my hands can exhibit a callum as testimonial of their industry . . . from all this you will conclude we are happy." Some time before this Coleridge first met the brother poet who was to have such an influence on him--Wordsworth. It has been said that until he met Wordsworth, Coleridge was a man of talent, afterwards he was a man of genius. From this time his imitative work ceased and his true poetic life began. One of his first works where we see Wordsworth's influence is "Frost at Midnight." Dorothy Wordsworth describes Coleridge as he was then--"At first I thought him plain--that is for about three minutes; he is pale, thin and has a wide mouth, thick lips and not very good teeth, longish, loose-growing, half-curling rough black hair. His eye is large, full, not very dark, but grey, such an eye as would receive from a heavy soul the dullest expression, but it speaks every emotion of his animated mind. He has fine dark eyebrows and overhanging forehead." Wordworth and his sister were staying at Alfoxden, to be near Coleridge, and the poets often met and discussed poetry. The result was the publication of the "Lyrical Ballads" between them, in which Coleridge was to restrict himself to the supernatural and Wordsworth was to write of incidents from simple village life. Coleridge's contributions were: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the "Dark Ladye," the first part of "Christabel." Lamb said of it--"I dislike all the miraculous part in it, but the feelings of a man under the operation of such scenery dragged me along like Tom Piper's magic whistle." Coleridge's power of finding visionary music for visionary speech is truly wonderful. Wordsworth complained that the Mariner had no character; perhaps it is true; he is only embodied memory of what he has lived through, he is not a man--only a vision. Yet the whole of this visionary world is real, weird; we all feel the same thrill reading "The Ancient Mariner" as the poet describes in "Christabel."

      "Like one that on a lonesome road
            Doth walk in fear and dread,
      And having once turned round, walks on
            And turns no more his head,
      Because he knows a frightful fiend
            Doth close behind him tread."

Sailors must sometimes have that feeling; for who would be surprised at seeing in a dead calm far out at sea, a phantom ship sail silently by? It is this feeling Coleridge gives us in "The Ancient Mariner"--his imagination and exquisite melody were never at their height except when he was thus far away from this human world. The whole poem is based on the motive, "He prayeth well who loveth well, both man and bird and beast." Men who violate the laws of Nature--who are without pity and love--cannot pray, they cannot be wise; Nature to them is dead and the powers of Nature are their enemies until their hearts are changed. Thus the storm blast, the dark, have life and will; the ocean binds all together, moving like one vast spirit. The poetry is not to be analysed. Poetry herself is everywhere, yet never obtrusive. We feel this even more in "Christabel"--all the critics together could not analyse its music. Here harmony and imagination are in perfect union; the atmosphere is of this world, but spiritualised and dreamy. It is perhaps better as a fragment; it has been thought that it was a pity the second part was ever written than written so long after, when Coleridge no longer felt the whole; he should have finished while he still lived in the dim fairy world to which it belongs.

About this time also Coleridge wrote "The Three Graves," "Fears in Solitude," "Ode to France," and "Kubla Khan."

"The Three Graves" is a very simple melody, yet full of mystery and supposed supernaturalism. "Fears in Solitude" is full of beautiful pictures from Nature. The story of the writing of "Kubla Khan" is well known. The author was staying in a farm house on Exmoor, recruiting his health. After reading from "Purchas' Pilgrimage," "Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto, and thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall," Coleridge fell asleep. After about three hours' slumber, during which, so he confidently said, he composed from 200 to 300 lines of poetry, he awoke and began to write. Unfortunately he was interrupted by a visitor and afterwards was unable to remember the rest; and we can never cease to have bitter feelings towards that ill-timed visit. The poem is a marvel of imagination and the poetry full of weird music; many lines express their meaning in their sounds alone--as for instance when the poet describes the sacred river: "Five miles meandering with a mazy motion."

The publication of these poems did not bring much, if any, remuneration, and Coleridge was again plunged in difficulties. Charles Lloyd, who had been living with him for several years, now left him on account of some breach of friendship. Everything Coleridge tried, failed; he had no fixed source of income, or none that amounted to more than £1 1s. a week. He tried preaching in a Unitarian Chapel at Shrewsbury, but did not keep to it long; for he was saved by the liberality of the brothers Wedgewood. They were most kind, and being truly interested in him they offered him a pension of £150 a year that he might be able to give himself up to poetry. He accepted it, and in September, 1798, he set out for Germany with Wordsworth and his sister. Together they visited the old poet [Friedrich Gottlieb] Klopstock--the Clubstick, as Coleridge nicknamed him--and then they separated. Coleridge remained in Germany nearly a year, mastering the language but keeping a strong English accent. The result of these travels was several translations and imitations from the German--notably "Wallenstein," perhaps the finest example of extant of poetry translated into poetry. I have read that in translating this drama, Coleridge introduced some lines of his own where he felt the German was weak. Some time after, Schiller read this English translation and seeing this innovation, liked it so much, that he translated it back into German. Neither poet confessed his deed. For the next two years Coleridge wrote for the Morning Post, the Courier, etc. and seems to have made money. In 1800, he paid his first visit to the Lakes, renting half Greta Hall, near Keswick. Here he met Wordsworth, and Lamb and his sister visited him. "Coleridge had a blazing fire in his study," writes Lamb in August, "which is a large antique ill-shaped room with an old-fashioned organ never played upon, big enough for a church, shelves of scattered folios, an Eolian harp, and an old sofa, half bed." During this time Coleridge's health seems to have improved. Sometime before, he began taking opium to ease himself of rheumatic pains, but the habit does not seem to have bound him down at this time. He had great animal spirits and a keen sense of humour. Writing to Wedgewood in 1803 he gives a most interesting account of his vigour as a mountaineer: "I write with difficulty with all the fingers but one of my right hand very much swollen. Before I was half way up the Kirkstone Mountain, the storm had wetted me through and through, and before I reached the top it was so wild and outrageous that I dismounted and sent my guide home with the storm in her back. I am no novice in mountain mischiefs, but such a storm as this I never witnessed, combining the intensity of the cold with the violence of the wind and rain. The raindrops were pelted or slung against my face by the gusts, just like splinters of flint, and I felt as if every drop cut my flesh . . . Oh! it was a wild business! Such a hurry skurry of clouds, such volleys of sound."

Coleridge's sense of humour is shown in such poems as "The House that Jack Built" and "The Ode to the Rain"--composed before daylight, on the morning appointed for the departure of a very worthy but not very pleasant visitor, whom it is feared the rain might detain.

Soon after this Coleridge went on a tour in Wales with Thomas Wedgewood, and on his return his health seemed worse. The poems "Dejection" and "Pains of Sleep" belong to this time; they show that his poetical powers had been in abeyance during his long silence, but that he had lost the power to write continuously; few poems are more sorrowful or nearer to despair.

In 1804, Coleridge went to Malta as secretary to Sir Alexander Ball, the Governor; but he only stayed ten months. He did not find much to admire in the Maltese--"What can Sir Francis Head mean," he says, "by talking of the musical turn of the Maltese? Why, when I was at Malta all nature was discordant. The very cats caterwauled more horribly and pertinaciously than I ever heard elsewhere . . . The dogs are deafening, and so throughout. Musical indeed! I have hardly gotten rid of the noise yet." In the meantime he was becoming more and more the slave of opium. There seems to have been some estrangement between him and his wife which led him to Rome on leaving Malta, rather than straight home; he broke off correspondence, and his friends almost thought him dead. Southey never forgave him for it--we cannot understand what all the motives were; Coleridge was miserable, we know--he speaks of himself at this time as "ill, penniless and worse than homeless." At last he came back, but he could not bear "home"; everyone seemed to misunderstand him, except perhaps Wordsworth; so he left the Lakes and went to struggle alone in London. De Quincey, who had met him years ago in Nether Stowey, called upon him often and indeed helped him secretly; the Wedgewoods withdrew half his pension, which made life still harder for him. In 1806 he gave lectures on Art at the Royal Institution; these were most successful, and the following winter he engaged to give a course on English Poets; but these lectures failed, for Coleridge often omitted to fulfil his engagements and they had to be discontinued. In 1808, Coleridge came north again, not to Keswick, but to Grasmere with the Wordsworths. He started The Friend [a collection of essays] with the help of his brother poets, "but," says De Quincey, "never was anything so grievously mismanaged"; which seems indeed to have been true. In 1810, Coleridge left the Lakes, never to return; he took lodgings in London or stayed with various friends, making futile attempts at earning money. He struggled hard, but opium had done much to wreck him; still, it was as late as 1812 that he delivered his lectures on Shakespeare, on which his great fame as a critic rests. They have been preserved in part by shorthand notes, long lost, but recovered after forty years. Coleridge was the father of philosophical criticism in England; he criticised the spirit rather than the letter, and spoke of the ethics and deeper truths of Shakespeare's poetry rather than of the form and diction; he showed that criticism should not be based on arbitrary laws borrowed from the ancients, but on nature. The point of several of his lectures was to show Shakespeare as an artist; he said that although so different from the Greek writers, and so complex, Shakespeare was as artistic as Sophocles. We feel we do not need to be told this now, but we owe Coleridge this debt of gratitude, for he was the first to raise criticism out of the narrow sphere in which it had moved till then. In 1813, Coleridge wrote his plays "Osorio" and "Remorse," but he was never successful with original drama. The next year he produced "Zapoyla" but it was refused at Drury Lane and Covent Garden; some of the songs in this play are very beautiful--they were perhaps written at an earlier time. In 1816, Coleridge put himself under the care of Dr. Gillman, of Highgate, with the intention of overcoming his terrible habit of opium eating. Whether he ever did or not is not known; he was most repentant--and wished that his biography might be written as a warning to all men. In return for their kindness Coleridge used to give afternoon talks to the Gillmans--and he was great in conversation. He wrote one or two more beautiful poems--"Youth and Age" is exquisite. Towards the end of 1833 he wrote his own epitaph:--

      "Stop, Christian passer-by, stop, child of God,
      And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
      A poet lies, or that which once seemed he--
      O lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.
      That he who many a year with toil of breath
      Found death in life, may here find life in death!
      Mercy for praise--to be forgiven for fame--
      He asked, and hoped through Christ. Do thou the same."

Death came suddenly to him on Friday, 25th July, 1834, and he was buried in Highgate Churchyard. The grave had hardly closed over him when the world--so hard and unsympathetic before--echoed with his praise. It is always so with the truly great.

[The poems referred to were read by one or another of the audience at the places indicated.]
Authorities.--Mr. Stopford Brooke, Golden Book of Coleridge; De Quincey's Confessions; Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals; Through the Wordsworth Country; Notes from lectures by Mr. Churton Collins.

Typed by Blossom Barden, January, 2023; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023