Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 5, June 1836, 2:???-???


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RECOLLECTIONS OF COLERIDGE.

Letters, Conversations and Recollections of S. T. Coleridge. New York: Harper and Brothers.

We feel even a deeper interest in this book than in the late Table-Talk. But with us (we are not ashamed to confess it) the most trivial memorial of Coleridge is a treasure of inestimable price. He was indeed a myriad-minded man,” and ah, how little understood, and how pitifully villified! How merely nominal was the difference (and this too in his own land) between what he himself calls the “broad, pre-determined abuse” of the Edinburgh Review, and the cold and brief compliments with the warm regrets of the Quarterly. If there be any one thing more than another which stirs within as a deep spirit of indignation and disgust, it is that damnation of faint praise which so many of the Narcissi of critical literature have had the infinite presumption to breathe against the majesty of Coleridge — of Coleridge — the man to whose gigantic mind the proudest intellects of Europe found it impossible not to succumb. And as no man was more richly-gifted with all the elements of mental renown, so none was more fully worthy of the love and veneration of every truly [column 2:] good man. Even through the exertion of his great powers he sought no immediate worldly advantages. To use his own words, he not only sacrificed all present prospects of wealth and advancement, but, in his inmost soul, stood aloof from temporary reputation. In the volume now before us, we behold the heart, as in his own works we have beheld the mind, of the man. And surely nothing can be more elevating, nothing more cheering than this contemplation, to one who has faith in the possible virtue, and pride in the possible dignity of mankind. The book is written, we believe, by one of the poet’s most intimate friends — one too in whom we recognize a familiarity with the thoughts, and sympathy with the feelings of his subject. It consists of letters, conversations, and fragmentary recollections, interspersed with comment by the compiler, and dedicated to “Elizabeth and Robin, the Fairy Prattler, and still Meek Boy of the Letters.” The letters are by far the most valuable part of the compilation — although all is truly so. A portion of one of them we copy as affording a picture, never surpassed, of great mental power conscious of its greatness, and tranquilly submitting to the indignities of the world.

But enough of these generals. It was my purpose to open myself out to you in detail. My health, I have reason to believe, is so intimately connected with the state of my spirits, and these again so dependant on my thoughts, prospective and retrospective, that I should not doubt the being favored with a sufficiency for my noblest undertaking, had I the ease of heart requisite for the necessary abstraction of the thoughts, and such a reprieve from the goading of the immediate exigencies as might make tranquillity possible. But, alas I I know by experience (and the knowledge is not the less because the regret is not unmixed with self-blame, and the consciousness of want of exertion and fortitude,) that my health will continue to decline as long as the pain from reviewing the barrenness of the past is great in an inverse proportion to any rational anticipations of the future. As I now am, however, from five to six hours devoted to actual writing and composition in the day is the utmost that my strength, not to speak of my nervous system, will permit; and the invasions on this portion of my time from applications, often of the most senseless kind, are such and so many as to be almost as ludicrous even to myself as they are vexatious. In less than a week I have not seldom received half a dozen packets or parcels of works, printed or manuscript, urgently requesting my candid judgment, or my correcting hand. Add to these, letters from lords and ladies, urging me to write reviews or puffs of heaven-born geniuses, whose whole merit consists in being ploughmen or shoemakers. Ditto from nctors ; entreaties for money, or recommendations to publishers, from ushers out of place, &c. &c.; and to me, who have neither interest, influence, nor money, and, what is still more àpropos, can neither bring myself to tell smooth falsehoods nor harsh truths, and, in the struggle, too often do both in the anxiety to do neither. I have already the written materials and contents, requiring only to be put together, from the loose papers and commonplace or memorandum books, and needing no other change, whether of omission, addition, or correction, than the mere act of arranging, and the opportunity of seeing the whole collectively bring with them of course, — I. Characteristics of Shakspeare’s Dramatic Works, with a Critical Review of each Play; together with a relative and comparative Critique on the kind and degree of the Merits and Demerits of the Dramatic Works of Ben Johnson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Messinger. The History of the English Drama; the accidental advantages it afforded to Shakspeare, without in the least detracting from the perfect originality or proper creation of the [page 452:] Shakspearian Drama; the contradistinction of the latter from the Greek Drama, and its still remaining uniqueness, with the causes of this, from the combined influences of Shakspeare himself, as man, poet, philosopher, and finally, by conjunction of all these, dramatic poet; and of the age, events, manners, and state of the English language. This work, with every art of compression, amounts to three volumes of about five hundred pages each. — II. Philosophical Analysis of the Genius and Works of Dante, Spenser, Milton, Cervantes, and Calderon, with similar, but more compressed, Criticisms on Chaucer, Ariosto, Donne, Rabelais, and others, during the predominance of the Romantic Poetry. In one large volume. These two works will, I flatter myself, form a complete code of the principles of judgment and feeling applied to Works of Taste; and not of Poetry only, but of Poesy in all its forms, Painting, Statuary, Music, &c. &c. — III. The History of Philosophy considered as a Tendency of the Human Mind to exhibit the Powers of the Human Reason, to discover by its own Strength the Origin and Laws of Man and the World, from Pythagoras to Locke and Condillac Two volumes. — IV. Letters on the Old and New Testaments, and on the Doctrine and Principles held in common by the Fathers and Founders of the Reformation, addressed to a Candidate for Holy Orders; including Advice on the Plan and Subjects of Preaching, proper to a Minister of the Established Church.

To the completion of these four works I have literally nothing more to do than to transcribe; but as I before hinted, from so many scraps and Sibylline leaves, including margins of books and blank pages, that, unfortunately, I must be my own scribe, and not done by myself, they will be all but lost; or perhaps (as has been too often the case already) furnish feathers for the caps of others; some for this purpose, and some to plume the arrows of detraction, to be let fly against the luckless bird from whom they had been plucked or moulted.

In addition to these — of my Great Work, to the preparation of which more than twenty years of my life ave been devoted, and on which my hopes of extensive and permanent utility, of fame, in the noblest sense of the word, mainly rest — that, by which I might,

“As now by thee, by all the good be known,

When this weak frame lies mouldered in the grave,

Which self-surviving I might call my own,

Which Folly cannot mar, nor Hale deprave —

The incense of those powers, which, risen in flame,

Might make me dear to Him from whom they came.”

Of this work, to which all my other writings (unless I except my poems, and these I can exclude in part only) are introductory and preparative; and the result of which (if the premises be, as I, with the most tranquil assurance, am convinced they are — insubvertible, the deductions legitimate, and the conclusions commensurate, and only commensurate, with both,) must finally be a revolution of all that has been called Philosophy or Metaphysics in England and France since the era of the commencing predominance of the mechanical system at the restoration of our second Charles, and with this the present fashionable views, not only of religion, morals, and politics, but even of the modern physics and physiology. You will not blame the earnestness of my expressions, n ir the high importance which I attach to this work; for how, with less noble objects, and less faith in their attainment, could Island acquitted of folly and abuse of time, talents, and learning, in a labor of three fourths of my intellectual life? Of this work, something more than a volume has been dictated by me, so as to exist fit for the press, to my friend and enlightened pupil, Mr. Green; and more than as much again would have been evolved and delivered to paper, but that, for the last six or eight months, I have been compelled to break off our weekly meeting, from the necessity of writing (alas! alas! of attempting to write) for purposes, and on the subjects of the passing day. Of my poetic works, I would fain finish the Christabel. Alas! for the proud time when I planned, when I had [column 2:] present to my mind the materials, as well as the scheme of the hymns entitled, Spirit, Sun, Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Man; and the epic poem on — what still appears to me the one only fit subject remaining for an epic poem — Jerusalem besieged and destroyed by Titus.

And here comes my dear friend; here comes my sorrow and my weakness, my grievance and my confession. Anxious to perform the duties of the day arising out of the wants of the day, these wants, too, presenting themselves in the most painful of all forms, — that of a debt owing to those who will not exact it, and yet need its payment, and the delay, the long (not live-long but death-long) behindhand of my accounts to friends, whose utmost care and frugality on the one side, and industry on the other, the wife’s management and the husband’s assiduity are put in requisition to make both ends meet, — I am at once forbidden to attempt, and too perplexed earnestly to pursue, the accomplishment of the works worthy of me, those I mean above enumerated, — even if, savagely as I have been injured by one of the two influensive Reviews, and with more effective enmity undermined by the utter silence or occasional detractive compliments of the other,* I had the probable chance of disposing of them to the booksellers, so as even to liquidate my mere boarding accounts during the time expended in the transcription, arrangement, and proof correction. And yet, on the other hand, my heart and mind are for ever recurring to them. Yes, my conscience forces me to plead guilty. I have only by fits and starts even prayed. I have not prevailed of myself to pray to God in sincerity and entireness for the fortitude that might enable me to resign myself to the abandonment of all my life’s best hopes, to say boldly to myself, — “Gifted with powers confessedly above mediocrity, aided by an education, of which, no less from almost unexampled hardships and sufferings than from manifold and peculiar advantages, I have never yet found a parallel, I have devoted myself to a life of unintermitted reading, thinking, meditating, and observing. I have not only sacrificed all worldly prospects of wealth and advancement, but have in my inmost soul stood aloof from temporary reputation. In consequence of these toils and this self-dedication, I possess a calm and clear consciousness, that in many and most important departments of truth and beauty 1 have outstrode my contemporaries, those at least cf highest name; that the number of my printed works bears witness that I have not been idle, and the seldom acknowledged, but strictly proveable, effects of my labors appropriated to the immediate welfare of my age in the Morning Post before and during the peace of Amiens, in the Courier afterward, and in the series ard various subjects of my lectures at Bristol and at the Royal and Surrey Institutions, in Fetter Lane, at Willis’s Rooms, and at the Crown and Anchor (add to which the unlimited freedom of my communications ir. colloquial life), may surely be allowed as evidence that I have not been useless in my generation. But, from circumstances, the main portion of my harvest is still on the ground, ripe indeed, and only waiting, a few for the sickle, but a large part only for the sheaving, and carling, and housing, but from all this I must turn away, must let them rot as they lie, and be as though they never had been, for I must go and gather blackberries and earth-nuts, or pick mushrooms and gild oak-apples for the palates mid fancies of chance customers. I must abrogate the name of philosopher and poet, and scxibtle as fast as I can, and with as little thought as I can, for Blackwood’s Magazine, or, as I have been employed for the last days, in writing MS. sermons for lazy clergymen, who stipulate that the composition must not be more than respectable, for fear they should be desired to publish the visitation sermon!” This I have notyf. had courage to do. My soul sickens and my heart sinks: [page 453:] and thus, oscillating between both, I do neither, neither as it ought to be done, or to any profitable end. If I were to detail only the various, I might say capricious, interruptions that have prevented the finishing of this very scrawl, begun on the very day I received your last kind letter, you would need no other illustrations.

Now I see but one possible plan of rescuing my permanent utility. It is briefly this, and plainly. For what we struggle with inwardly, we find at least easiest to bolt out, namely, — that of engaging from the circle of those who think respectfully and hope highly of my powers and attainments a yearly sum, for three or four years, adequate to my actual support, with such comforts and decencies of appearance as my health and habits have made necessaries, so that my mind may be unanxinus as far as the present time is concerned; that thus I should stand both enabled and pledged to begin with some one work of these above mentioned, and for two thirds of my whole time to devote myself to this delusively till finished, to take the chance of its success by the best mode of publication that would involve me in no risk, then to proceed with the next, and so on till the works above mentioned as already in full material eiislenceshould be reduced into formal and actual being; while in the remaining third of my time I might go on maturing and completingmy great work (for if but easy in mind I have no doubt either of the reawakening power or of the kindling inclination,) and my Christa oel, and what else the happier hour might inspire — and without inspiration a barrel-organ may be played right deftly; but

“All otherwise the state of poet stands:

For lordly want is such a tyrant fell,

That where he rules all power he doth expel.

The vaunted verse a vacant head demands,

Ne wont with crabbed Care the muses dwell:

Unwisely weaves who takes two treat in hand!

Now Mr. Green has offered to contribute from 30l. to 40l. yearly, for three or four years; my young friend and pupil, the son of one of my dearest old friends, 50l.; and I think that from 10l. to 20l. I could rely upon from another. The sum required would be about 200l., to be repaid, of course, should the disposal or sale, and as far as the disposal and sale of my writings produced the means.

I have thus placed before you at large, wanderingly as well as diffusely, the statement which I am inclined to send in a compressed form to a few of those of whose kind dispositions towards me I have received assurances, — and to their interest and influence I must leave it — iniious, however, before I do this, to learn from you your very, very inmost feeling and judgment as to the previous questions. Am I entitled, have I earned a right to do this? Can I do it without moral degradation? and, lastly, can it be done without loss of character in the eyes of my acquaintance, and of my friends’ acquaintance, who may have been informed of the circumstances? That, if attempted at all, it will be attempted in such a way, and that such persons only will be spoken to, as will not expose me to indelicate rebuffs to be afterward matter of gossip, I know those to whom I shall entrust the statement, too well to be much alarmed about.

Pray let me either see or hear from you as soon as possible; for, indeed and indeed, it is no inconsiderable secession to the pleasure I anticipate from disembarrassment, that you would have to contemplate in a more spacious form, and in a more ebullient play of the inward fountain, the mind and manners of. My dear friend, Your obliged and very affectionate friend,

S. T. COLERIDGE.

It has always been a matter of wonder to us that the Biographia Literaria here mentioned in the foot note has never been republished in America. It is, perhaps, the most deeply interesting of the prose writings of Coleridge, and affords a clearer view into his mental constitution [column 2:] than any other of his works. Why cannot some of our publishers undertake it? They would be rendering an important service to the cause of psychological science in America, by introducing a work of great scope and power in itself, and well calculated to do away with the generally received impression here entertained of the mysticism of the writer.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 451, column 2:]

* Neither my Literary Life, (2 vols.) nor Sibylline Leaves, (1 vol.) nor Friend, (3 vols.) nor Lay Sermons, nor Zapolya, nor Christabel, have ever been noticed by the Quarterly Review, of which Southey is yet the main support.

 


Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (June 1836)