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and Southey. There it was that he wrote his last important poems,
the second part of Christabel and the Ode to Dejection, — and turned his attention more and more to literary criticism and metaphysics. Coleridge's creative energy was being sapped, and his splendid intellect clouded, by the use of opium. He had first taken the drug to quiet the torments of gout and neuralgia, and had gradually come more and more under its terrible spell, until, about 1803, the habit became fixed. For fifteen years he struggled to free himself from its toils, seeking relief from mental depression and illness in study and travel. His will, never strong, seems to have been paralyzed by the drug, so that his many projects were dropped, his family was left to the care of others, and Coleridge himself became dependent on the help of friends like the Wedgewoods, De Quincey, and Byron. Finally, under the care of a Mr. Gilman, a surgeon at Highgate, London, in whose house he found a home, he conquered the fatal habit.
Carlyle, who visited Coleridge at Mr. Gilman's, says, he "gave you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings, a life heavy-laden, half vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of manifold physical and other bewilderment ... a heavy-laden, high-aspiring, and surely much-suffering man." Once, with the sense of power strong within him, Coleridge had looked forward to the composition of many books, the very titles of which, he says, would have filled a volume; now, with so much yet undone, he was beaten and disheartened, tired by the long fight against himself and the world. In one of his later poems he pictures himself as listless and inert in the midst of the glad young vigor of the spring, idle while “all Nature seems at work." Yet there was no bitterness in his nature, no envy of other men's
success. He had a genuine delight in Wordsworth's great achievements, and to the last showed a noble and disinterested concern for increasing man's knowledge of truth. His unfinished life ended in 1834. The world had let him die in the conviction of failure, but no sooner had the grave closed over him than England resounded with his praise.
Influence on His Time. — In estimating Coleridge's contribution to the thought of the nineteenth century, we must consider not his work only but the inspiring power of his personality and his talk. His conversation was, by all accounts, far-reaching, wonderful, and almost endless. Though he wrote only one great and perfect poem, The Ancient Mariner, though his critical and philosophical writings are fragmentary, Coleridge was perhaps the greatest single influence upon the minds of his contemporaries. Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Southey, Carlyle, were indebted to him; and Lamb said that Coleridge "first kindled in him, if not the power, the love of poetry, and beauty, and kindness." This stimulating influence was exerted largely in conversation, by “his long arrow-flights of thought.” Hazlitt says that in his prose “Hardly a gleam is to be found ... of the brilliancy and richness of those stores of thought and language that he pours out incessantly” in his talk. And one of Coleridge's editors says, “Throughout a long-drawn summer's day would this man talk to you in low, equable, and musical tones, concerning all things human and divine.” It is by this power and by the number of new and valuable ideas that he put in circulation, and by the number of minds he “excited into activity," that the true worth of Coleridge's life must be judged.
As Philosopher and Critic. — In Coleridge's varied mental activity, the writing of poetry was but one
interest, even perhaps a somewhat incidental one. His discursive energy spent itself in philosophy, in theology, in political journalism, and in criticism. Although Coleridge never developed a system of philosophy, he had a profound influence as a prophet or seer. As Carlyle said, " he had, especially among young, inquiring men, a higher than literary, a kind of prophetic or magician character. ... A sublime man; who alone in those dark days had saved his crown of spiritual manhood, escaping from the black materialisms and revolutionary deluges with 'God, Freedom, Immortality,' still his.” He strove to infuse into the common sense and materialistic English philosophy the more ideal and spiritual character of contemporary German thought. He applied his philosophical habits of mind to literary criticism, and became the most profound critic of his time. He examined the functions of the human mind, and the source of our ideas of beauty; and in reviewing works of literary art he aimed to show their merits rather than their faults. In the Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, he announced his critical principles, and opposed what he called “the manufacturing of poems.” He showed that real poetry must contain something more than common sense and correct meter, that it must be born of high imaginative power and sincere feeling. His lectures on Shakespeare began an era in the history of English Shakespearean criticism.
As Poet. -- Coleridge left but little poetry. He seems to have required peculiar conditions for poetic composition; inspiration came to him suddenly, in mysterious gusts; but often before a poem was finished it as suddenly left him, apparently as powerless as an ordinary mortal to complete what he alone could have
begun. Thus, after writing the second part of Christabel, a poem born of the very breath of inspiration, he waited vainly until the end of his life for the return of the creative mood. He tells us that when writing Kubla Khan, a poem which came to him in his sleep as a kind of vision, he was interrupted " by a person on business from Porlock,” and that on his return he was unable to complete it. Yet, notwithstanding the fragmentary nature of his work, Coleridge's poetry has new and great beauties which influenced many of the later poets of England. He introduced a new and captivating music into English verse, and an element of strange and supernatural beauty. He had the power, above most poets of his time, of creating by sheer force of imagination, and, as it were, out of the vacancy of space, visions unearthly but real. His descriptions of Nature are often condensed and vivid, like those of Dante, showing the power to enter into the spirit of a scene and reproduce it with a few quick strokes:
“The sun's rim dips; the stars rush out;
At one stride comes the dark.”
The Ancient Mariner. --The greatest of his poems, The Ancient Mariner, combined many of the elements of the new romanticism: it combined the supernatural element and the quick sympathy with Nature of which we have spoken, with the interest in the old ballad poetry of England. Not only is it a ballad in form; it is filled with those ghostly and mysterious elements which, in a cruder shape, enter so largely into the folk-song and legend of primitive superstition. With wonderful skill Coleridge has woven this supernatural element into a narrative of possible incidents, so realistically told as to fully persuade us of their truth. Moreover, in this shad
owy world, we are haunted by the continual suggestion of some underlying moral significance. We can hardly fail to feel that Coleridge has here written for us the great poem of charity. The mariner on some lonely and distant sea kills an albatross, a creature that has trusted him, that has loved him, that has partaken of the sailors' food and come at their call. The necessary penalty for this breach in the fellowship of living things is an exclusion from that fellowship. He and his shipmates are pursued by the Spirit of Vengeance and terrified by the Spectre of Life-in-Death. His companions fall dead about him. He is
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
until by his compassion for the “happy living things' about the ship, which he at first despised — by the renewal of that love or charity against which he has sinned — he takes the first step toward his return into the great brotherhood of animate creation.
Looked at from this aspect, The Ancient Mariner becomes the profoundest and perhaps most beautiful expression of that feeling of sympathy for all living things which we have found uttering itself with increasing distinctness in later eighteenth-century literature.
Poet of Nature and Man. But Coleridge is more than a poet of the supernatural and of charity. Like Wordsworth, he sees in Nature the outward manifestation of a divine presence and energy. But he realizes, as Wordsworth did not appear to do, that to each man Nature is but what his mood or his power of spiritual apprehension makes her. Like Wordsworth, too, he was a poet of freedom. As he watched the promise of the French Revolution depart in the license and frenzy