A Blupete Biography Page

Conclusions, Part 10 to the Life & Works of
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In analyzing the character of Coleridge in the first part of his essay, "Mr. Coleridge," William Hazlitt, as he so often does, puts his finger immediately on the point. The point is that the making of a good work, does not depend on genius, but it most certainly depends on a disconnected consciousness focused on the job at hand. "It is hard to concentrate all our attention and efforts on one pursuit, except from ignorance of others; and without this concentration of our faculties no great progress can be made in any one thing." Hazlitt, in the latter part of his essay deals with this point in greater length applying it to Coleridge; Hazlitt in his brilliant fashion compares Coleridge to one of literary lights of the age, William Godwin.
"No two persons can be conceived more opposite in character or genius ... Mr. Godwin, with less natural capacity and with fewer acquired advantages, by concentrating his mind on some given object, and doing what he had to do with all his might, has accomplished much, and will leave more than one monument of a powerful intellect behind him; Mr. Coleridge, by dissipating his, and dallying with every subject by turns, has done little or nothing to justify to the world or to posterity the high opinion which all would have ever heard him converse, or known him intimately, with one accord entertain of him. Mr. Godwin's faculties have kept at home, and plied their task in the workshop of the brain, diligently and effectually: Mr. Coleridge's have gossiped away their time, and gadded about from house to house, as if life's business were to melt the hours in listless talk. Mr. Godwin is intent on a subject, only as it concerns himself and his reputation; he works it out as a matter of duty, and discards from his mind whatever does not forward his main object as impertinent and vain.
Mr. Coleridge, on the other hand, delights in nothing but episodes and digressions, neglects whatever he undertakes to perform, and can act only on spontaneous impulses without object or method. 'He cannot be constrained by mastery.' While he should be occupied with a given pursuit, he is thinking of a thousand other things: a thousand tastes, a thousand objects tempt him, and distract his mind, which keeps open house, and entertains all comers; and after being fatigued and amused with morning calls from idle visitors [he] finds the day consumed and its business unconcluded. Mr. Godwin, on the contrary, is somewhat exclusive and unsocial in his habits of mind, entertains no company but what he gives his whole time and attention to, and wisely writes over the doors of his understanding, his fancy, and his senses--'No admittance except on business.' He has none of that fastidious refinement and false delicacy, which might lead him to balance between the endless variety of modern attainments. He does not throw away his life (nor a single half hour of it) in adjusting the claims of different accomplishments, and in choosing between them or making himself master of them all. He sets about his task (whatever it may be), and goes through it with spirit and fortitude. He has the happiness to think an author the greatest character in the world, and himself the greatest author in it.
Mr. Coleridge, in writing an harmonious stanza, would stop to consider whether there was not more grace and beauty in a Pas de trois, and would not proceed till he had resolved this question by a chain of metaphysical reasoning without end. Not so Mr. Godwin. That is best to him, which he can do best. He does not waste himself in vain aspirations and effeminate sympathies. He is blind, deaf, insensible to all but the trump of Fame. Plays, operas, painting, music, ball-rooms, wealth, fashion, titles, lords, ladies, touch him not. All these are no more to him than to the magician in his cell, and he writes on to the end of the chapter through good report and evil report. Pingo in eternitatem is his motto. He neither envies nor admires what others are, but is contented to be what he is, and strives to do the utmost he can. Mr. Coleridge has flirted with the Muses as with a set of mistresses: Mr. Godwin has been married twice, to Reason and to Fancy, and has to boast no short-lived progeny by each."53
Just after he first got to know Coleridge, during the winter of 1810, Henry Crabb Robertson wrote in his diary:
"It was after my first day's sitting with him that I wrote thus to my brother: He kept me on the stretch of attention and admiration from ½ past 3 till 12 o'clock. On politics, metaphysics and poetry, more especially on the Regency, Kant, and Shakespeare he was astonishingly eloquent. But I have made one remark on him: tho' he practises all sorts of delightful tricks and shews admirable skill in riding his hobbies, yet he may be easily unsaddled. I was surprised to find how easy it is to obtain from him concessions which lead to gross inconsistencies. Tho' an incomparable declaimer and speech-maker, he has neither the readiness nor the acuteness required by a colloquial disputant, so that with a sense of inferiority that makes me humble in his presence, I do not feel in the least afraid of him. Rough said yesterday that he is sure he would never have succeeded at the bar even as a speaker. - This I wrote after the first sight of him. I used afterwards to compare him as a disputant with a serpent - easy to kill if you assume the offensive, but if you let him attack, his bite is mortal. Some years after this, when I saw Mme de Staël in London, I asked her what she thought of him. That, she replied, he is very great in monologue, but he has no idea of dialogue."54
Robinson was to make this observation on Coleridge's lecturing technique, one that was more of a more general observation of Coleridge, viz., Coleridge had a splendid intellect but it was "vitiated by want of method and concentration."
"Colerige's lectures do high honour to him as a man of genius, but are discreditable to him (perhaps I might use without injustice a stronger word) as a man who has a duty to discharge; for either he wants judgment to know what he ought to introduce in his lectures, or is overpowered by very culpable indolence and will not qualify himself to do justice to his subject, his hearers or himself. His pretended lectures are unmethodical rhapsodies, moral, metaphysical and literary; abounding in brilliant thoughts, fine flashes of rhetoric, occasionally profound and salutary truths, but they are not a scientific or constructive course of reading on any one subject a man can wish to fix his attention on."55
Robinson compares Wordsworth to Coleridge:
"One I believe the greatest man now living in this country and the other a man of astonishing genius and talents, though not harmoniously blended as in his happier friend to form a great and good man."56
From de Quincey's Literary Reminiscences:
"Coleridge, as is notorious, whenever he happened to be in force, or even in artificial spirits, was even more than brilliant; to use a word too often abused and prostituted, he was even magnificent beyond all human standards; had a felicitous conversational specimen from him, was sometimes the most memorable chapter in a man's whole intellectual experience through life."57
"This gentleman [Coleridge] belongs to the class of eclectic philosophers; but whereas they professed to examine different systems, in order to select what was good in each, our perverse critic ransacks all past or present theories, to pick out their absurdities, and to abuse whatever is good in them. ... He refers the great excellence of the British Constitution to the prerogatives of the Crown, and conceives that the old French Constitution must have been admirably defended by the States-General, which never met, from the abuses of arbitrary power. He highly approves of ex-officio informations and special juries, as the great bulwarks of the liberty of the press; taxes he holds to be providential relief to the distresses of the people and war to be state of greater security than peace. He defines Jacobinism to be an abstract attachment to liberty, truth, and justice; and finding that this principle has been abused or carried to excess, he argues that Anti-jacobinism, or the abstract principles of despotism, superstition, and oppression, are the safe, sure and undeniable remedy for the former, and the only means of restoring liberty, truth, and justice in the world. ... He judges of men as he does of things. He would persuade you that Sir Isaac Newton was a money-scrivener, Voltaire dull, Bonaparte a poor creature, and the late Mr. Howard a misanthrope; while he plays a willing homage to the Illustrious Obscure, of whom he always carries a list in his pocket. He is at cross-purposes with himself as well as others, and discards his own caprices if ever he suspects there is the least ground for them. Doubt succeeds to doubt, clouds rolls over cloud, one paradox is driven out by another still greater, in endless succession. He is equally averse to the prejudices of the vulgar, the paradoxes of the learned, or the habitual convictions if his own mind. He moves in an unaccountable diagonal between truth and falsehood, sense and nonsense, sophistry and common-place, and only assents to any opinion when knows that all the reasons are against it. A matter of fact is abhorrent to his nature: the very air of truth repels him. He is only saved from the extremities of absurdity by combining them all in his own person. Two things are indispensable to him -- to set out from no premises, and to arrive at no conclusion. The consciousness of a single certainty would be an insupportable weight upon his mind. He slides out of a logical deduction by the help of metaphysics: and if the labyrinths of metaphysics did not afford him "ample scope and verge enough," he would resort to necromancy and the cabala. He only tolerates the science of astronomy for the sake of its connection with the dreams of judicial astrology, and escapes from the Principia of Newton to the jargon of Lily and Ashmole. All his notions are floating and unfixed, like what is feigned of the first form of things flying about in search of bodies to attach themselves to; but his ideas seek to avoid all contact with solid substances. Innumerable evanescent thoughts dance before him, and dazzle his sight, like insects in the evening sun. Truth is to him a ceaseless round of contradictions: he lives in the belief of a perpetual lie, and in affecting to think what he pretends to say. His mind is in a constant state of flux and reflux: he is like the Sea-horse in the Ocean; he is the Man in the Moon, the Wondering Jew. -- The reason of all this is that Mr. Coleridge has great powers of thought and fancy, without will or sense. He is without a strong feeling of the existence of any thing out of himself; and he has neither purposes nor passions of his own to make him wish it to be. All that he does or thinks is involuntary; even his perversity and self-will are so."58
We have seen where on April 15th, 1816, Coleridge moved into the London home of Dr. James Gillman; this was so that Gillman might help Coleridge with his long-standing opium addiction. With Gillmans' help Coleridge became, at least stabilized, such that he was finally able to get certain of his works into print.59 In 1816, Murray published three of Coleridge's works: Chrisabel, Kubla Khan, and The Pains of Sleep. It came out as one, a 64 page pamphlet. In 1817, Biographia Literaria was published. In 1825, his Aids to Reflection was to come out. New friends and old were to come to pay visits to Coleridge at the Gillman residence. It would not appear that he traveled much beyond where Dr. Gillman could keep an eye on him; though, in 1828, he, then age 56, did get together with Wordsworth and they both, together with Wordsworth's daughter, Dora, did a tour of the Rhine.60 By 1832, however, Coleridge's health was in a serious state; at that time Robinson made a note in his diary that Coleridge was "horribly bent and looked seventy years of age." On July 25th, 1834, Coleridge died.61 His Epitaph, which he wrote himself, reads as follows:
"Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he
Oh, lift a 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."
The image that we are left with, though possessed of a brilliant intellect, he was a person without a will who abandoned himself to his drug addiction at the expense of his family and friends; and, possibly the literary world, as, it is surmised that he wrote little of importance beyond his earlier works.
"His usual tearing high spirits, enormous charm, beautiful manners, inherent sweetness of nature goodness of heart, dazzling conversation, over-whelming intellectual capacity and vast erudition made it seem incredible that this gifted 'Heaven-eyed creature' should possess feet of a substance not so much resembling clay, as pulp."62
For people who write such things, they live their life almost to the end, then write their biography; in a sense, Coleridge first wrote his biography in the form of his epic poem, The Rhyme of Ancient Mariner, then he lived it.
"Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on the wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Liv'd on; and so did I."

A featured sketch in a book


The English Romantics


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