Symposium of Critics on S. T. Coleridge

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      Swinburne: Coleridge as a poet, his place is indisputable: it is high among the highest of all time. Other and stronger men, with fuller control and concentration, genius, may do more service, may bear more fruit; but such as his they will not have in them to give. The highest lyric work is either passionate or imaginative. Of passion Coleridge has nothing but for height and perfection of imaginative quality, he is the greatest of lyric poets. This is his special power and this is his special praise.

      Hazlitt: Coleridge is the only person from whom I ever learn anything. There is only one thing he can learn from me in return, but that he has not. He is the first poet, I ever know. His genius at that time had angelic wings, and feed think on manna. He talked on for ever, and you wish him to talk on for ever. His does not seem to come with labour or effort, but as if borne on the gusts of genius and as if the wings of his imagination lifts him from off his feet. His voice rolls on the ear like the pealing organ, and its sound alone is the music of thought. His mind is clothed with wings; and raises on them, he has lifted philosophy to heaven....

      Courthope: Coleridge's reform in English poetry is mainly concerned with the technical side of the art. Before his time the rhythms employs by English poets has been almost exclusively iambic or trochaic, and the traditional tendency has to confine them more and more within the heroic couplet which, from its narrow limits, give little scope for liberty or variety of movement, and however effective for the purposes of the epigram, is an inadequate vehicle for the expression of powerful emotions. Coleridge, advancing along with the line of invention opens by Chatterton, converts the ancient rhythms and metres of the language into vehicles for his own imaginative thoughts. His ear has haunted by the possibilities of the metrical turns suggest him by his study of ballad poetry; and he associates these with the strange, and as it has seemed to him supernatural experiences of his own imagination with genius akin to that of a musician. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he shows that it is possible, through the Ballad form, to give expression to a marvellous series of supernatural incidents; Christabel is an illustration of the beautiful and picturesque effects that may be created in the fancy by the combination of dactylic with iambic and trochaic rhythms in the line of four accents.

      Dawson: What of the works of Coleridge? It may be said briefly that it is upon his poetry that the fame of Coleridge is built. His Friend is full of the ripest wisdom; his Biographa Literaria of isolated passages of great beauty; his Lectures on Shakespeare have long held their place as masterpieces of critical insight, but it is after all, by his poetry that future generations will know him. The Ancient Mariner and Christabel stand alone in English literature. Coleridge has an extraordinary power of interpreting the supernatural, the night side of Nature, that weird, subtle, spiritual undercurrent of life which invests with mysterious significance this hard outer world. In doing this he has done superbly what no other has attempted with more than partial success. He possesses force of imagination and felicity of epithet, and each in an extraordinary degree. His words are music and his power of producing on the ear the effect of fine music merely by the assonance of the words is unrivalled. No great poet has written less, but the best of what he has written is so perfect of its kind that there can be no mistaking the superscription of immortality with which it is stamped.

      The faults of Coleridge's style are its occasional confusion and diffuseness. This, however, is most apparent in his political poems, and is probably attributable to the fact that Coleridge find the themes uncongenial. It is in the world of pure imagination he is most at home, and it is there he attains his highest literary excellence. In delicate and airy fancy, not less than in imaginative intensity, he has few rivals. Such a poem as Kubla Khan, a mere dream within a dream, may illustrate the one, and The Ancient Mariner the other. His force as a thinker and metaphysician is a waning force, but his poetic fame has never stood so high as now. This result is accurately perceived immediately on his death by the review that had persistently ridiculed him for many years when it wrote "Coleridge of all men who ever lived, is always a poet, in all his moods, and they were many, inspired". It is so the best poems of Coleridge still impress us, and when the logician and the metaphysician weary us, we turn with ever fresh delight, to the bard. The pity of it is that Coleridge is so seldom the bard, and so often the metaphysician; for who will not give all the prose writings of Coleridge for another twenty pages of poetry like the Ancient Mariner.

      Woodberry: His sensitiveness to Nature is two-fold; in the first place he notices in the objects and movement of nature evanescent and minute details, and as his sense of beauty is keen, he sees and records truly the less obvious and less common loveliness in the phenomena of the elements and the seasons, and this give distinction to his mere description and record of fact; in the second place he often feels in himself a mood induced by nature, but yet subjective-states of his own spirit, which sometimes deepens the charms of night for example, by his enjoyment of its placid aspects, and sometimes imparts to the external world a despair has been reflected from his personal melancholy. In his direct treatment of Nature, however, as Stopford Brooke points out, he seldom achieves more than a catalogue of his sensations which, though touched with imaginative detail, are never lifted and harmonised into lyrical unity, though he can moralise Nature in Wordsworth's fashion and when he does so the result remains Wordsworth's and is stamped with that poet's originality and in his own original work Coleridge never has been equalled either the genius of Shelley, who can identify nature with himself, or the charm of Tennyson, who can at least parallel of nature's phenomena with his own human moods. Coleridge will not be thought of as a poet of nature except in so far as he describes what he observes in the way of record or gives a metaphysical interpretation to phenomena. But in those poems in which he describes nature directly and without metaphysical thought, there is no trace of anything more than a sensuous order of his own perceptions. Beautiful and often unique as his Nature poems are, they are not creative.

      Hales: Poetry is with Coleridge but one of many pursuits; he does not take the Muse to him for better and worse and cleave only to her. It is only in his young manhood that he is devoted himself to her; in the later periods of his life political and critical and religious questions mainly occupies him. What of poetry, almost all his writings are a collection of fragments rather than complete achievements. He is for ever designing and plotting, not acting. He is conscious of his weakness in the respect, but has not strength to overcome it. He is a living Hamlet full of the most splendid thoughts and the noblest purposes, but a most incompetent doer. "Carmen relguum'' he notes at the end of The Three Graves, a fragment of a Sexton's Tale, "In future tempus relegatum" (Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow). At the end of his introduction in 1817 to Kubla Khan or A Vision in a Dream — a fragment, he adds, "yet from the still surviving recollection in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally as it were, given to him but the to-morrow is yet to come". And it never came. The incompletion of Christabel is a severe loss to our literature. The two parts, we happily possess, are of wonderful beauty and power. They were the immediate inspiration of the Lay of the Last Minstrel ("It is to Mr. Coleridge" writes Scott. "That I am found to make the acknowledgment due from the pupil to his master"); and certainly Scott himself never succeeds in surrounding any one of his works with so fine an atmosphere of glamour and romance. Moreover, Coleridge's spiritual insight is incomparably profounder than that of Scott; he sounds depths of feeding and thought beyond the reach of the northern Minstrel's plummet. In the scanty amount of what he has produced Coleridge reminds one of Gray, but the causes of sterility are different. Gray has suffered from fastidiousness Coleridge rather from an overwhelming abundance of interests and ideas. His Mind writes Southey, "is in a perpetual St. Vitus, dance: eternal activity without action". If no man can serve two masters, still less can he serve half-dozen. "Expede Herculem" in such a way we must be content to infer how splendid an artist was there in Coleridge.

      K.E. Royds: A correspondent of H. Crabb Robinson has once written to him "of all men, there seems most need to say, 'God bless poor Coleridge.' One can almost believe that an enchanter's spell is upon him forcing him to be what he is, and yet leaving him the power of showing what he may be". It is this tantalizing feeling of unfulfilled possibilities that, in spite of Lamb's objection to the use of the adjective "poor" in connection with such a man remains our feelings about him. The tragedy of his wasted manhood is real enough and not to be minimized. It is one of those who know him best who write, while aware of his achievements. "It vexes and grieves me to the heart that when he is gone nobody will believe what a mind goes with him — how infinitely and then ten thousand fold the mightiest of his generation". Yet this sense of what he may have done must not be allowed to overshade on the realisation of what he do. In the course of the story we have seen something of the great work that he and Wordsworth together accomplishes for English poetry, freeing it from the chains of eighteenth-century convention and bringing to it once more genuine love of Nature and spiritual insight into her processes. Coleridge especially breathed into it fresh the spirit of high romance, wedded to modern knowledge of the ''phenomena of mind". As a critic among much else that is valuable, he give Shakespeare back to the English people.

      As a theologian, champion of orthodoxy as he grow conservative, he has influenced greally such rising men of the younger generation as F.O. Maurice, Kingsley and Newman. Me has been claimed as the teacher of greatest influence behind the Tractarian movement.

      And the last note shall be personal. As a man he has won and has kept the love, admiration, and friendship of some of the noblest men of his generation. Nor let it be forgotten that against the 'body that did him grievous wrong' after years of slavery and misery he has rose up and conquered. This is not the least worthy of remembrance among his achievements.

      Critics have compared his last years of quiet life on Highgate Hill to the pale shining out of the sun before its setting. Rather will we say, wears from the fight of the night of darkness that has engulfed him, Coleridge claims to heights where, aloof from the struggle, with the violent ardours of youth left behind, yet with forward looking thoughts, he spends what strength is left in brave endeavour to point others towards the sunrise.

      T.F. Huntington: It only remains to say a word about his place in literature. As a journalist he moves on a high plane of thought and morality, and, by scorning the tactics of the mere politician and bringing his intellect to bear upon the momentous events of his time, because at least in the broad view he take of all political problems, he is the legitimate successor of the great Burke. As a theologian, his influence is even more far-reaching. He is the mentor at whose feet sits such men as Thomas Arnold, Julius Hare and Frederick Maurice. He sights to moralise and spiritualize the religion of England, and to find on the shadowy border between psychology and theology some relation between the human and the divine. As a philosopher, his special praise is again to be found in his influence. He left no system of philosophy and his exposition of the transcendentalism of Kant and his followers is not thorough or systematic enough to be final. He is the means, however, of introducing England to German thought, and thus of inaugurating, against the materialism of Locke and Paley the revolution out of which arose the transcendental movement, headed by Carlyle in England and by Emerson in America, the result, in a way of Coleridge's influence upon the intellect of his time. But great as is his influence in theology and metaphysics, his position as a critic is even more commanding. He is easily at the head of English philosophical criticism. Modern English criticism is indebted to Coleridge for some of its soundest principles, as well as much of its terminology and, many of its famous dicta. He also revolutionises the accepted view of Shakespeare and says that his work is not the product of the wild, irregular genius of a pure child of nature, but of a poetic wisdom, which is as remarkable for its disclosure of judgments as for its manifestation of genius.

      As a poet Coleridge's work is very much a matter of definitions. If we say, with Matthew Arnold, "that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life, to the question how to live" Coleridge must give precedence to many others and to none of his contemporaries more than to Wordsworth; but if we say, with Matthew Arnold again that "poetry is simply the most delightful and perfect form of utterance that human words can reach", and add with Coleridge himself, that the immediate object of poetry is "pleasure, not truth" then the rank has been assigned to the creator of the Ancient Mariner, of Kubla Khan and of Christabel must be high among the highest. In the fine harmony of his diction and the pure power of his imagination, in the ability to do by means of words what the musician do by means of notes, what a painter does by means of colours, he has, among lyrics poets, few equals — he has no superior. Extract from Blackwood's Magazine, 1819. The longest poem in the collection of the Sibylline Leaves is the Rime of the Ancient Mariner—and to our feeling, it is by far the most wonderful also the most original, and the most touching of all the productions of its author. From it alone, we are inclined to think, an idea of the whole poetic genius of Mr. Coleridge may be gathered, such as he could scarcely receive an important addition either of extent or of distinctness, from a perusal of the whole of his other works. To speak of it at all is extremely difficult: above all the poems with which we are acquainted in any language — it is a poem to be felt — cherished — mused upon — not to be talked about-not capable of being described — analysed — or criticised. It is the wildest of all the creations of genius — it is not like a thing of the living, listening, moving world - the very music of its words is like the melancholy mysterious breath of something sung to the slipping ear — its images have the beauty - the grandeur — the incoherence of some, mighty vision. The loveliness and the terror glide before us in turns — with, at one moment, the awful shadowy dimness - at another, the yet more awful distinctness of a majestic dream.

      Charles Lamb: (Abstract from A Letter To Southey Rejoinder to Southey on his criticism of The Ancient Mariner). If you write that review in Crit. Rev., I am sorry you are so sparing of praise to The Ancient Mariner—so far from calling it as you do, with some wit, but more severity, 'A Dutch Attempt', etc. I call it a right English attempt, and a successful one, to dethrone German sublimity. You have selected a passage fertile in unmeaning miracles, but have passed by fifty passages as miraculous as the miracles they celebrate. I have never felt so deeply the pathetic as in that part,

A spring of love gush'd from my heart,
And I bless'd them unaware.

      It stung me into high pleasure through suffering. Loyd do not like it; his head is too metaphysical, and your taste too correct; at least I must allege something against you both, to excuse my own dotage.

      William Wordsworth: (From Preface to 2nd edition of Lyrical Ballads, 1800). The poem of my Friend has indeed great defects; first, that the principal person has no distinct character, either in his profession of Mariner, or as a human being who having been long under the control of supernatural impressions might be supposed himself to partake of something supernatural; secondly, that he does not act, but is continually acted upon; thirdly, that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other; and lastly, that the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated. Yet the poem contains many delicate touches of passion, and indeed the passion is everywhere true to nature: a great number of the stanzas present beautiful images, and are expressed with unusual felicity of language and the versification, tho' the meter is itself unfit for long poems, is harmonious and artfully varied, exhibiting the utmost powers of that meter, and every variety of which it is capable. It, therefore, appeared to me that these several merits (the first of which, namely, that of the passion, is of the highest kind) gave to the poem a value which is not often possessed by better poems.

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