Page images

imperfect and useless as a mere utilitarian might call it, there is the same frank, fearless boldness of speculation, the same firmness of purpose, the same love of what is good, pure, and holy, the same love of Nature and of Nature's God, that he exhibits everywhere; and he showed this in his epitaph, which he wrote himself. “ Beneath this sod,” it says,

A poet lies, or that which once seem'd 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 !
Mercy for praise, to be forgivın for fame,
He ask'd, and hoped through Christ : do thou the same.

One thing, at any rate, is striking enough in this poet's life—that, unlike many other writers, he loved not to expatiate on himself, but on others; that he was always modest and retiring, always enlisted on the side of God, and never in the slightest degree on that of the world or the devil. To the development of Christianity Coleridge gave a very sensible impetus. Like Dr. Johnson, but with a deeper and a finer theological instinct, he stood up in the gate and fought with the infidel, and overcame him. Permeated with the sublimity of the Old Testament, full of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Job, the enthusiast went out into the streets, disputing even with Jew clothesmen, and doing all he could to win them to the fold of the Good Shepherd. What an instructive piece of biography is here! As a thinking boy, this learned and good Christian once lapsed into Atheism ; “from which I was saved,” he wrote, “by the judicious conduct of Dear Dr. Bowyer” (the head master of Christ's Hospital, and, by the way, a severe flogger). “What is the matter, boy?' said he. "Sir,


S. T.



said I, “I am sorry to inform you that I am conscientiously an Atheist !' • Come along with me, boy,' thundered Bowyer; and, without a word of argument he took me into his study, and flogged me soundly. That flogging saved me. Had he stopped to argue, it would have flattered my pride, and I should have been lost for ever.”

Coleridge's poems are written for poets, or at least for men of a delicate ear and sensitive perception of truth and beauty, and are distinguished for their musical rhythm, their fancy, and sweet melody. What there is of them is almost all good, and what is excellent is far beyond all poets but those of the very first rank. Beyond the mere mechanical and musical beauty of the verse, there is a deep, hidden meaning, a satisfying fancy, a pure and holy conception, that makes one at once acknowledge a true poet, "with his singing robes about him”—one not content to wait in the outer courts of fancy, or to ornament himself with the mere prettinesses of rhyme, like the fashionable writers of the eighteenth century, but who penetrated at once into the Adytum, and stood in the presence of God. His “ Ode to France," his "Genevieve," "Ancient Mariner," "Christabel,”

,” “Youth and Age,” are, far and away, the best of the most purely poetical things produced during this century. They are so original, so entirely the poet's own, that we can find nothing else like them. Not to have read Coleridge is to have passed over a perfectly fresh species of mind. To have read him is frequently not to understand him, for he is very subtle and refined; but to read him repeatedly and understand him, is to become the heir of a rich intellectual possession which can never be forfeited.


[graphic][merged small][merged small]



HE richness of the English mind is no

where seen so conspicuously as in our poets ; and perhaps the most wonderful thing in all literature was the extra

ordinary fertility of the English mind at the beginning of this century. Let us take a group

of poets, each of whom has had some effect on his age, and we shall at once see within how narrow a space of time they were born, and therefore what an amount of true genius was shining upon our little island at



Walter Savage Landor, a learned and rich man, generous and impulsive in all things, was born in 1775, and remained with us till 1864. Bryan W. Procter was born fifteen years later, 1790, and still survives. John Keats was born in 1796, and died in 1820; and Thomas Hood, born in 1798, died in 1845. These had each a distinct style, and each won a world-wide audience,

[blocks in formation]

so that what they have left has added to the rich heirloom of pure and noble thoughts to which every Englishman is born. In addition to these names, we must add those of two poets, differing widely from each other and from all others, who adorned the same cycle: these are, Shelley, who died in 1822, at the early age of thirty; and George Crabbe, who lived from 1754 till 1832.

Of these poets, the highest class of genius was undoubtedly possessed by two, who were cut off in comparative youth, Shelley and Keats. Professor Craik reckons the first as by far the highest genius of all modern poets, unless it be Coleridge. Happily or unhappily, for the term will depend much upon the way in which we regard events, Shelley was opposed to Christianity, because he knew little or nothing about it; and he died before disappointment, suffering, and the greatest teacher of all, Time, could tell, soften, and teach him. His “Queen Mab” was written when he was eighteen, and is the most powerful of all early promises that poets have ever given ; and from the date of the publication of “Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude,” to that of his death only seven years elapsed, during which he poured forth volume after volume of poetry, rich with imagery, boldness, tenderness, and beauty, and unsurpassed in freshness and fertility of imagination. Now, during all this time, Shelley, who had decided on living at right angles with the world, who would scarcely bow to the rules of marriage, would not submit to any rites of the Church, and carried his opposition so far as to put down all Napoleon's cruelties to the fact of his eating meat, lived, in consequence, a very unhappy life.

He was

very cruel to his first wife; and the poor girl, the daughter of a labourer, committed suicide.

He married a second, Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter, and regularly and systematically set at defiance all the rules of society. Perhaps he was right in his own mind, but at any rate he had no reason to complain if society treated him as no ordinary mortal. If a schoolboy throws stones at a decent man, the man will reply with a horsewhip; and we hold that the boy has little cause for complaining of cruelty. But Shelley cried out vigorously. The Almighty was to him a cruel fiend, our Saviour a hypocrite, our whole system wrong. He delighted in affording to the world the spectacle of an eccentric, wilful genius, whom the sane men of his time wondered at and avoided. He and Byron and Leigh Hunt played the little game of three against the world, and fled from London to Geneva, whence they safely railed against the English, admired Voltaire and Rousseau; wrote poetry, and talked a great deal of it, no doubt. But all this came to an end very speedily, for Shelley and his friend Mr. Williams were overturned in a boat off Leghorn. The poet's body was washed ashore, and, according to the law of Tuscany, which ordained that everything so cast ashore should be burnt, his remains were consumed, and the ashes collected, and deposited in the Protestant burial-ground at Rome. The heart was sent to Mrs. Shelley, after some resistance from Leigh Hunt, who very much wanted it; upon which Byron made the remark, “What the devil would he do with it, save put it in a pot, and cry over it?” And thus ended the life and mortal part of this most gifted poet. It would be of little use to qu

Shelley; he who

« PreviousContinue »