In this instance, we think the writer's modesty has led him into a degree of unnecessary precaution. We see no sort of difference between his published and his unpublished compositions. It is just as impossible to get at the meaning of the one as the other. No man ever yet gave Mr. Coleridge "a penny for his thoughts." His are all maiden ideas; immaculate conceptions. He is the "Secret Tattle" of the press. Each several work exists only in the imagination of the author, and is quite inaccessible to the understanding of his readers -- "Yet virgin of Proserpina from Jove." -- We can give just as good a guess at the design of this Lay-Sermon, which is not published, as of the Friend, the Preliminary Articles in the Courier, the Watchman, the Conciones ad Populum, or any of the other courtly or popular publications of the same author. Let the experiment be tried, and if, on committing the manuscript to the press, the author is caught in the fact of a single intelligible passage, we will be answerable for Mr. Coleridge's loss of character. But we know the force of his genius too well. What is his Friend itself but an enormous title-page; the longest and most tiresome prospectus that ever was written; and endless preface to an imaginary work; a table of contents that fills the whole volume; a huge bill of fare of all possible subjects, with not an idea to be had for love or money? One number consists of a grave-faced promise to perform something impossible in the next; and the next is taken up with a long-faced apology for not having done it. Through the whole of this work, Mr. Coleridge appears in the character of the Unborn Doctor; the very Barmecide of knowledge; the Prince of preparatory authors!
He is the Dog in the Manger of literature, an intellectual Mar-plot, who will neither let any body else come to a conclusion nor come to one himself.2 This gentleman 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 takes his notions of religion from the "sublime piety" of Jordano Bruno, and considers a belief in a God as a very subordinate question to the worship of Three Persons of The Trinity. The thirty-nine articles and St Athanasius's creed are, upon the same principle much more fundamental parts of the Christian religion than the miracles or gospel of Christ. He makes the essence of devotion to consist in Atheism, the perfection of morality in a total disregard of consequences. 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. Again he places the seat of truth in the heart, of virtue in the head; damns a tragedy as shocking that draws tears from the audience, and pronounces a comedy to be inimitable, if nobody laughs at it; labours to unsettle the plainest things by far-fetched sophistry, and makes up for the want of proof in matters of fact by the mechanical operation of the spirit. 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. His creed is formed not from a distrust and disavowal of the exploded errors of other systems, but from a determined rejection of their acknowledged excellencies. It is a transposition of reason and common sense. He adopts all the vulnerable points of belief as the triumphs of his fastidious philosophy, and holds a general retainer of the defence of all contradictions in terms and impossibilities in practice. 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 he 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 is 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. They are nothing but a necessity of yielding to the slightest motive. Everlasting inconsequentiality marks all that he attempts. All his impulses are loose, airy, devious, casual. The strongest of his purposes is lighter than the gossamer, "that wantons in the idle summer-air:" the brightest of his schemes a bubble blown by an infant's breath, that rises, glitters, bursts in the same instant: --
When his six Irish friends, the six Irish gentleman, Mr. Makins, Mr. Dunkley, Mr. Monoghan, Mr. Gollogher, Mr. Gallaspy, ands Mr. O'Keefe, after an absence of several years, discovered their old acquaintance John Buncle, sitting in a mixed company at Harrowgate Wells, they exclaimed with one accord -- "There he is -- making love to the finest woman in the universe!" So we may say at a venture of Mr. Coleridge -- "There he is, at this instant (no matter where) talking away among his gossips, as if he were at the Court of Semiramis, with the Sophi or Prestor John." The place can never reach the height of his argument. He should live in a world of enchantment, that things might answer to his descriptions. His talk would suit the miracle of the Conversion of Constantine, or Raphael's Assembly of the Just. It is not short of that. His face would cut no figure there, but his tongue would wag to some purpose. He is fit to take up the deep pauses of conversation between Cardinals and Angels -- his cue would not be wanting in presence of the beatific vision. Let him talk on for ever in this world and the next; and both worlds will be the better for it. But let him not write, or pretend to write, nonsense. Nobody is the better for it. It was a fine thought in Mr. Wordsworth to represent Cervantes at the day of judgment and conflagration of the world carrying off the romance of Don Quixote under his arm. We hope that Mr. Coleridge, on the same occasion, will leave "the Friend" to take its chance, and his "Lay Sermon" to get up into the Limbo of Vanity, however it can.
1 Hazlitt's "Coleridge" is to be found in Political Essays (1819). The essay carries the date, Sept. 8, 1816, and was entitled "A Lay-Sermon on the Distresses of the Country, addressed to the Middle and Higher Orders. By S. T. Coleridge, Esq. Printed for Gale and Fenner, Price 1s." The very first footnote, was: "It may be proper to notice, that this article was written before the Discourse which it professes to criticise had appeared in print, or probably existed any where, but in repeated newspaper advertisements."
2(This work is so obscure, that it has been supposed to be written in cypher, and that it is necessary to read it upwards and downwards, or backwards and forwards, as it happens, to make head or tail of it The effect is exceedingly like the qualms produced by the heaving of a ship becalmed at sea; the motion is so tedious, improgressive, and sickening.) The original footnote found in the original work; I have, in turn, placed them in parentheses.