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COLERIDGE lived in the most extraordinary and agitated period of modern history; and to a certain extent he was so mixed up with its controversies, that he was at one time taken for nothing but an apostate republican, and at another for a dreaming theosophist. The truth is, that both his politics and theosophy were at the mercy of a discursive genius, intellectually bold but educationally timid, which, anxious, or rather willing, to bring conviction and speculation together, mooting all points as it went, and throwing the subtlest glancing lights on many, ended in satisfying nobody, and concluding nothing. Charles Lamb said of him, that he had “the art of making the unintelligible appear intelligible.” He was the finest dreamer, the most eloquent talker, and the most original thinker of the day; but for want of complexional energy, did nothing with all the vast prose part of his mind but help the Germans to give a subtler tone to criticism, and sow a few valuable seeds of thought in minds worthy to receive them. Nine-tenths of his theology would apply equally well to their own creeds in the mouths of a Brahmin or a Mussulman.
His poetry is another matter. It is so beautiful, and was so quietly content with its beauty, making no call on the critics, and receiving hardly any notice, that people are but now begin. ning to awake to a full sense of its merits. Of pure poetry, strictly so called, that is to say, consisting of nothing but its essential self, without conventional and perishing helps, he was the greatest master of his time. If you would see it in a phial, like a distillation of roses (taking it, I mean, at its best), it would be found without a speck. The poet is happy with so good a gift, and the reader is “happy in his happiness." Yet so little, sometimes, are a man's contemporaries and personal acquaintances able or disposed to estimate him properly, that while Coleridge, unlike Shakspeare, lavished praises on his poetic friends, he had all the merit of the generosity to himself; and even Hazlitt, owing perhaps to causes of political alienation, could see nothing to admire in the exquisite poem of Christabel, but the description of the quarrel between the friends! After speaking, too, of the Ancient Mariner as the only one of his poems that he could point out to any one as giving an adequate idea of his great natural powers, he adds, “It is high German, however, and in it he seems to conceive of poetry but as a drunken dream, reckless, careless, and heedless of past, present, and to come.” This is said of a poem, with which fault has been found for the exceeding conscientiousness of its moral ! O, ye critics, the best of ye, what havoc does personal difference play with your judgments! It was Mr. Hazlitt's only or most unwarrantable censure, or one which friendship found hardest to forgive. But peace, and honor too, be with his memory! If he was a splenetic and sometimes jealous man, he was a disinterested politician and an admirable critic : and lucky were those whose natures gave them the right and the power to pardon him.
Coleridge, though a born poet, was in his style and general musical feeling the disciple partly of Spenser, and partly of the fine old English ballad-writers in the collection of Bishop Percy. But if he could not improve on them in some things, how he did in others, especially in the art of being thoroughly musical ! Of all our writers of the briefer narrative poetry, Coleridge is the finest since Chaucer; and assuredly he is the sweetest of all our poets. Waller's music is but a court-flourish in compari. son; and though Beaumont and Fletcher, Collins, Gray, Keats, Shelley, and others, have several as sweet passages, and Spenser is in a certain sense musical throughout, yet no man has written whole poems, of equal length, so perfect in the sentiment of music, so varied with it, and yet leaving on the ear so unbroken and single an effect.
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
And on her dulcimer she play'd,
That is but one note of a music ever sweet, yet never cloying.
It ceas’d; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
In the leafy month of June,
The stanzas of the poem from which this extract is made (The Ancient Mariner) generally consist of four lines only ; but see how the “brook” has carried him on with it through the silence of the night.
I have said a good deal of the versification of Christabel, in the Essay prefixed to this volume, but I cannot help giving a further quotation.
It was a lovely sight to see
Of massy leafless boughs,
To make her gentle vows :
All the weeping eyes of Guido were nothing to that. But I shall be quoting the whole poem. I wish I could ; but I fear to trespass upon the bookseller's property. One more passage, however, I cannot resist. The good Christabel had been undergoing a trance in the arms of the wicked witch Geraldine :
A star hath set, a star hath risen,
O Geraldine ! since arms of thine
O Geraldine ! one hour was thine-
(An appalling fancy)
But now they are jubilant anew,
And see! the lady Christabel
(This, observe, begins a new paragraph, with a break in the rhyme)
Gathers herself from out her trance;
Yea, she doth smile, and she doth weep,
We see how such a poet obtains his music. Such forms of melody can proceed only from the most beautiful inner spirit of sympathy and imagination. He sympathizes, in his universality, with antipathy itself. If Regan or Goneril had been a young and handsome witch of the times of chivalry, and attuned her violence to craft, or betrayed it in venomous looks, she could not have beaten the soft-voiced, appalling spells, or sudden, snakeeyed glances of the lady Geraldine,-looks which the innocent Christabel, in her fascination, feels compelled to “imitate.”
A snake's small eye blinks dull and shy,
The maid devoid of guile and sin
This is as exquisite in its knowledge of the fascinating tendencies of fear as it is in its description. And what can surpass a line quoted already in the Essay (but I must quote it again !) for very perfection of grace and sentiment ?—the line in the. passage where Christabel is going to bed, before she is aware that her visitor is a witch.
Quoth Christabel,-So let it be !
Oh! it is too late now; and habit and self-love blinded me at the time, and I did not know (much as I admired him) how great a poet lived in that grove at Highgate ; or I would have cultivated its walks more, as I might have done, and endeavored to return him, with my gratitude, a small portion of the delight his verses have given me.
I must add, that I do not think Coleridge's earlier poems at all equal to the rest. Many, indeed, I do not care to read a second time ; but there are some ten or a dozen, of which I never tire, and which will one day make a small and precious volume to