ANONYMOUS ON COLERIDGE
[From Blackwood's Magazine, October, 1817]
SOME OBSERVATIONS ON THE "BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA" OF S. T. COLERIDGE, ESQ., 1817
When a man looks back on his past existence, and endeavours to recall the incidents, events, thoughts, feelings, and passions of which it was composed, he sees something like a glimmering land of dreams, peopled with phantasms and realities undistinguishably confused and intermingled—here illuminated with dazzling splendour, there dim with melancholy mists,—or it may be shrouded in impenetrable darkness. To bring, visibly and distinctly before our memory, on the one hand, all our hours of mirth and joy, and hope and exultation,—and, on the other, all our perplexities, and fears and sorrows, and despair and agony,— (and who has been so uniformly wretched as not to have been often blest?—who so uniformly blest as not to have been often wretched?)— would be as impossible as to awaken, into separate remembrance, all the changes and varieties which the seasons brought over the material world,—every gleam of sunshine that beautified the Spring,—every cloud and tempest that deformed the Winter. In truth, were this power and domination over the past given unto us, and were we able to read the history of our lives all faithfully and perspicuously recorded on the tablets of the inner spirit,—those beings, whose existence had been most filled with important events and with energetic passions, would be the most averse to such overwhelming survey—would recoil from trains of thought which formerly agitated and disturbed, and led them, as it were, in triumph beneath the yoke of misery or happiness. The soul may be repelled from the contemplation of the past as much by the brightness and magnificence of scenes that shifted across the glorious drama of youth, as by the storms that scattered the fair array into disfigured fragments; and the melancholy that breathes from vanished delight is, perhaps, in its utmost intensity, as unendurable as the wretchedness left by the visitation of calamity. There are spots of sunshine sleeping on the fields of past existence too beautiful, as there are caves among its precipices too darksome to be looked on by the eyes of memory; and to carry on an image borrowed from the analogy between the moral and physical world, the soul may turn away in sickness from the untroubled silence of a resplendent Lake, no less than from the haunted gloom of the thundering Cataract. It is from such thoughts, and dreams, and reveries, as these, that all men feel how terrible it would be to live over again their agonies and their transports; that the happiest would fear to do so as much as the most miserable; and that to look back to our cradle seems scarcely less awful than to look forward to the grave.
But if this unwillingness to bring before our souls, in distinct array, the more solemn and important events of our lives, be a natural and perhaps a wise feeling, how much more averse must every reflecting man be to the ransacking of his inmost spirit for all its hidden emotions and passions, to the tearing away that shroud which oblivion may have kindly flung over his vices and his follies, or that fine and delicate veil which Christian humility draws over his virtues and acts of benevolence. To scrutinize and dissect the character of others is an idle and unprofitable task; and the most skilful anatomist will often be forced to withhold his hand when he unexpectedly meets with something he does not understand—some confirmation of the character of his patient which is not explicable on his theory of human nature. To become operators on our own shrinking spirits is something worse; for by probing the wounds of the soul, what can ensue but callousness or irritability. And it may be remarked, that those persons who have busied themselves most with inquiries into the causes, and motives, and impulses of their actions, have exhibited, in their conduct, the most lamentable contrast to their theory, and have seemed blinder in their knowledge than others in their ignorance.
It will not be supposed that any thing we have now said in any way bears against the most important duty of self-examination. Many causes there are existing, both in the best and the worst parts of our nature, which must render nugatory and deceitful any continued diary of what passes through the human soul; and no such confessions could, we humbly conceive, be of use either to ourselves or to the world. But there are hours of solemn inquiry in which the soul reposes on itself; the true confessional is not the bar of the public, but it is the altar of religion; there is a Being before whom we may humble ourselves without being debased; and there are feelings for which human language has no expression, and which, in the silence of solitude and of nature, are known only unto the Eternal.
The objections, however, which might thus be urged against the writing and publishing accounts of all our feelings,—all the changes of our moral constitution,—do not seem to apply with equal force to the narration of our mere speculative opinions. Their rise, progress, changes, and maturity may be pretty accurately ascertained; and as the advance to truth is generally step by step, there seems to be no great difficulty in recording the leading causes that have formed the body of our opinions, and created, modified, and coloured our intellectual character. Yet this work would be alike useless to ourselves and others, unless pursued with a true magnanimity. It requires, that we should stand aloof from ourselves, and look down, as from an eminence, on our souls toiling up the hill of knowledge;—that we should faithfully record all the assistance we received from guides or brother pilgrims;— that we should mask the limit of our utmost ascent, and, without exaggeration, state the value of our acquisitions. When we consider how many temptations there are even here to delude ourselves, and by a seeming air of truth and candour to impose upon others, it will be allowed, that, instead of composing memoirs of himself, a man of genius and talent would be far better employed in generalizing the observations and experiences of his life, and giving them to the world in the form of philosophic reflections, applicable not to himself alone, but to the universal mind of Man.
What good to mankind has ever flowed from the confessions of Rousseau, or the autobiographical sketch of Hume? From the first we rise with a confused and miserable sense of weakness and of power—of lofty aspirations and degrading appetencies—of pride swelling into blasphemy, and humiliation pitiably grovelling in the dust—of purity of spirit soaring on the wings of imagination, and grossness of instinct brutally wallowing in "Epicurus' stye,"—of lofty contempt for the opinion of mankind, yet the most slavish subjection to their most fatal prejudices— of a sublime piety towards God, and a wild violation of his holiest laws. From the other we rise with feelings of sincere compassion for the ignorance of the most enlightened. All the prominent features of Hume's character were invisible to his own eyes; and in that meagre sketch which has been so much admired, what is there to instruct, to rouse, or to elevate—what light thrown over the duties of this life or the hopes of that to come? We wish to speak with tenderness of a man whose moral character was respectable, and whose talents were of the first order. But most deeply injurious to every thing lofty and high-toned in human Virtue, to every thing cheering, and consoling, and sublime in that Faith which sheds over this Earth a reflection of the heavens, is that memoir of a worldly-wise Man; in which he seems to contemplate with indifference the extinction of his own immortal soul, and jibes and jokes on the dim and awful verge of Eternity.
We hope that our readers will forgive these very imperfect reflections on a subject of deep interest, and accompany us now on our examination of Mr. Coleridge's "Literary Life," the very singular work which caused our ideas to run in that channel. It does not contain an account of his opinions and literary exploits alone, but lays open, not unfrequently, the character of the Man as well as of the Author; and we are compelled to think, that while it strengthens every argument against the composition of such Memoirs, it does, without benefiting the cause either of virtue, knowledge, or religion, exhibit many mournful sacrifices of personal dignity, after which it seems impossible that Mr. Coleridge can be greatly respected either by the Public or himself.
Considered merely in a literary point of view, the work is most execrable. He rambles from one subject to another in the most wayward and capricious manner; either from indolence, or ignorance, or weakness, he has never in one single instance finished a discussion; and while he darkens what was dark before into tenfold obscurity, he so treats the most ordinary common-places as to give them the air of mysteries, till we no longer know the faces of our old acquaintances beneath their cowl and hood, but witness plain flesh and blood matters of fact miraculously converted into a troop of phantoms. That he is a man of genius is certain; but he is not a man of a strong intellect nor of powerful talents. He has a great deal of fancy and imagination, but little or no real feeling, and certainly no judgment. He cannot form to himself any harmonious landscape such as it exists in nature, but beautified by the serene light of the imagination. He cannot conceive simple and majestic groupes of human figures and characters acting on the theatre of real existence. But his pictures of nature are fine only as imaging the dreaminess, and obscurity, and confusion of distempered sleep; while all his agents pass before our eyes like shadows, and only impress and affect us with a phantasmagorial splendour.
It is impossible to read many pages of this work without thinking that Mr. Coleridge conceives himself to be a far greater man than the Public is likely to admit; and we wish to waken him from what seems to us a most ludicrous delusion. He seems to believe that every tongue is wagging in his praise—that every ear is open to imbibe the oracular breathings of his inspiration. Even when he would fain convince us that his soul is wholly occupied with some other illustrious character, he breaks out into laudatory exclamations concerning himself; no sound is so sweet to him as that of his own voice; the ground is hallowed on which his footsteps tread; and there seems to him something more than human in his very shadow. He will read no books that other people read; his scorn is as misplaced and extravagant as his admiration; opinions that seem to tally with his own wild ravings are holy and inspired; and unless agreeable to his creed, the wisdom of ages is folly; and wits, whom the world worship, dwarfed when they approach his venerable side. His admiration of nature or of man, we had almost said his religious feelings towards his God, are all narrowed, weakened, and corrupted, and poisoned by inveterate and diseased egotism; and instead of his mind reflecting the beauty and glory of nature, he seems to consider the mighty universe itself as nothing better than a mirror in which, with a grinning and idiot self-complacency, he may contemplate the Physiognomy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Though he has yet done nothing in any one department of human knowledge, yet he speaks of his theories, and plans, and views, and discoveries, as if he had produced some memorable revolution in Science. He at all times connects his own name in Poetry with Shakespeare, and Spenser, and Milton; in politics with Burke, and Fox, and Pitt; in metaphysics with Locke, and Hartley, and Berkely, and Kant—feeling himself not only to be the worthy compeer of those illustrious Spirits, but to unite, in his own mighty intellect, all the glorious powers and faculties by which they were separately distinguished, as if his soul were endowed with all human power, and was the depository of the aggregate, or rather the essence of all human knowledge. So deplorable a delusion as this, has only been equalled by that of Joanna Southcote, who mistook a complaint in the bowels for the divine afflatus; and believed herself about to give birth to the regenerator of the world, when sick unto death of an incurable and loathsome disease.
The truth is that Mr. Coleridge is but an obscure name in English literature. In London he is well known in literary society, and justly admired for his extraordinary loquacity: he has his own little circle of devoted worshippers, and he mistakes their foolish babbling for the voice of the world. His name, too, has been often foisted into Reviews, and accordingly is known to many who never saw any of his works. In Scotland few know or care any thing about him; and perhaps no man who has spoken and written so much, and occasionally with so much genius and ability, ever made so little impression on the public mind. Few people know how to spell or pronounce his name; and were he to drop from the clouds among any given number of well informed and intelligent men north of the Tweed, he would find it impossible to make any intelligible communication respecting himself; for of him and his writings there would prevail only a perplexing dream, or the most untroubled ignorance. We cannot see in what the state of literature would have been different had he been cut off in childhood, or had he never been born; for except a few wild and fanciful ballads, he has produced nothing worthy remembrance. Yet, insignificant as he assuredly is, he cannot put pen to paper without a feeling that millions of eyes are fixed upon him; and he scatters his Sibylline Leaves around him, with as majestical an air as if a crowd of enthusiastic admirers were rushing forward to grasp the divine promulgations, instead of their being, as in fact they are, coldly received by the accidental passenger, like a lying lottery puff or a quack advertisement.
This most miserable arrogance seems, in the present age, confined almost exclusively to the original members of the Lake School, and is, we think, worthy of especial notice, as one of the leading features of their character. It would be difficult to defend it either in Southey or Wordsworth; but in Coleridge it is altogether ridiculous. Southey has undoubtedly written four noble Poems—Thalaba, Madoc, Kehama, and Roderick; and if the Poets of this age are admitted, by the voice of posterity, to take their places by the side of the Mighty of former times in the Temple of Immortality, he will be one of that sacred company. Wordsworth, too, with all his manifold errors and defects, has, we think, won to himself a great name, and, in point of originality, will be considered as second to no man of this age. They are entitled to think highly of themselves, in comparison with their most highly gifted contemporaries; and therefore, though their arrogance may be offensive, as it often is, it is seldom or ever utterly ridiculous. But Mr. Coleridge stands on much lower ground, and will be known to future times only as a man who overrated and abused his talents—who saw glimpses of that glory which he could not grasp—who presumptuously came forward to officiate as High-Priest at mysteries beyond his ken—and who carried himself as if he had been familiarly admitted into the Penetralia of Nature, when in truth he kept perpetually stumbling at the very Threshold.
This absurd self-elevation forms a striking contrast with the dignified deportment of all the other great living Poets. Throughout all the works of Scott, the most original-minded man of this generation of Poets, scarcely a single allusion is made to himself; and then it is with a truly delightful simplicity, as if he were not aware of his immeasurable superiority to the ordinary run of mankind. From the rude songs of our forefathers he has created a kind of Poetry, which at once brought over the dull scenes of this our unimaginative life all the pomp, and glory, and magnificence of a chivalrous age. He speaks to us like some ancient Bard awakened from his tomb, and singing of visions not revealed in dreams, but contemplated in all the freshness and splendour of reality. Since he sung his bold, and wild, and romantic lays, a more religious solemnity breathes from our mouldering Abbeys, and a sterner grandeur frowns over our time-shattered Castles. He has peopled our hills with Heroes, even as Ossian peopled them; and, like a presiding spirit, his Image haunts the magnificent cliffs of our Lakes and Seas. And if he be, as every heart feels, the author of those noble Prose Works that continue to flash upon the world, to him exclusively belongs the glory of wedding Fiction and History in delighted union, and of embodying in imperishable records the manners, character, soul, and spirit of Caledonia; so that, if all her annals were lost, her memory would in those tales be immortal. His truly is a name that comes to the heart of every Briton with a start of exultation, whether it be heard in the hum of cities or in the solitude of nature. What has Campbell ever obtruded on the Public of his private history? Yet his is a name that will be hallowed for ever in the souls of pure, and aspiring, and devout youth; and to those lofty contemplations in which Poetry lends its aid to Religion, his immortal Muse will impart a more enthusiastic glow, while it blends in one majestic hymn all the noblest feelings which can spring from earth, with all the most glorious hopes that come from the silence of eternity. Byron indeed speaks of himself often, but his is like the voice of an angel heard crying in the storm or the whirlwind; and we listen with a kind of mysterious dread to the tones of a Being whom we scarcely believe to be kindred to ourselves, while he sounds the depths of our nature, and illuminates them with the lightnings of his genius. And finally, who more gracefully unostentatious than Moore, a Poet who has shed delight, and joy, and rapture, and exultation, through the spirit of an enthusiastic People, and whose name is associated in his native Land with every thing noble and glorious in the cause of Patriotism and Liberty. We could easily add to the illustrious list; but suffice it to say, that our Poets do in general bear their faculties meekly and manfully, trusting to their conscious powers, and the susceptibility of generous and enlightened natures, not yet extinct in Britain, whatever Mr. Coleridge may think; for certain it is, that a host of worshippers will crowd into the Temple, when the Priest is inspired, and the flame he kindles is from Heaven.
Such has been the character of great Poets in all countries and in all times. Fame is dear to them as their vital existence—but they love it not with the perplexity of fear, but the calmness of certain possession. They know that the debt which nature owes them must be paid, and they hold in surety thereof the universal passions of mankind. So Milton felt and spoke of himself, with an air of grandeur, and the voice as of an Archangel, distinctly hearing in his soul the music of after generations, and the thunder of his mighty name rolling through the darkness of futurity. So divine Shakespeare felt and spoke; he cared not for the mere acclamations of his subjects; in all the gentleness of his heavenly spirit he felt himself to be their prophet and their king, and knew,
When all the breathers of this world are dead, That he entombed in men's eyes would lie.
Indeed, who that knows any thing of Poetry could for a moment suppose it otherwise? Whatever made a great Poet but the inspiration of delight and love in himself, and an empassioned desire to communicate them to the wide spirit of kindred existence? Poetry, like Religion, must be free from all grovelling feelings; and above all, from jealousy, envy, and uncharitableness. And the true Poet, like the Preacher of the true religion, will seek to win unto himself and his Faith, a belief whose foundation is in the depths of love, and whose pillars are the noblest passions of humanity.
It would seem that in truly great souls all feeling of self-importance, in its narrower sense, must be incompatible with the consciousness of a mighty achievement. The idea of the mere faculty or power is absorbed as it were in the idea of the work performed. That work stands out in its glory from the mind of its Creator; and in the contemplation of it, he forgets that he himself was the cause of its existence, or feels only a dim but sublime association between himself and the object of his admiration; and when he does think of himself in conjunction with others, he feels towards the scoffer only a pitying sorrow for his blindness—being assured, that though at all times there will be weakness, and ignorance, and worthlessness, which can hold no communion with him or with his thoughts, so will there be at all times the pure, the noble, and the pious, whose delight it will be to love, to admire, and to imitate; and that never, at any point of time, past, present, or to come, can a true Poet be defrauded of his just fame.
But we need not speak of poets alone (though we have done so at present to expose the miserable pretensions of Mr. Coleridge), but look through all the bright ranks of men distinguished by mental power, in whatever department of human science. It is our faith, that without moral there can be no intellectual grandeur; and surely the self-conceit and arrogance which we have been exposing, are altogether incompatible with lofty feelings and majestic principles. It is the Dwarf alone who endeavours to strut himself into the height of the surrounding company; but the man of princely stature seems unconscious of the strength in which nevertheless he rejoices, and only sees his superiority in the gaze of admiration which he commands. Look at the most inventive spirits of this country,—those whose intellects have achieved the most memorable triumphs. Take, for example, Leslie in physical science, and what airs of majesty does he ever assume? What is Samuel Coleridge compared to such a man? What is an ingenious and fanciful versifier to him who has, like a magician, gained command over the very elements of nature,—who has realized the fictions of Poetry,—and to whom Frost and Fire are ministering and obedient spirits? But of this enough.—It is a position that doubtless might require some modification, but in the main, it is and must be true, that real Greatness, whether in Intellect, Genius, or Virtue, is dignified and unostentatious; and that no potent spirit ever whimpered over the blindness of the age to his merits, and, like Mr. Coleridge, or a child blubbering for the moon, with clamorous outcries implored and imprecated reputation.
The very first sentence of this Literary Biography shows how incompetent Mr. Coleridge is for the task he has undertaken.
It has been my lot to have had my name introduced both in conversation and in print, more frequently than I find it easy to explain; whether I consider the fewness, unimportance, and limited circulation of my writings, or the retirement and distance in which I have lived, both from the literary and political world.
Now, it is obvious, that if his writings be few, and unimportant, and unknown, Mr. Coleridge can have no reason for composing his Literary Biography. Yet in singular contradiction to himself—
"If," says he, at p. 217, vol. i, "the compositions which I have made public, and that too in a form the most certain of an extensive circulation, though the least flattering to an author's self-love, had been published in books, they would have filled a respectable number of volumes."
He then adds,
Seldom have I written that in a day, the acquisition or investigation of which had not cost me the precious labour of a month!
He then bursts out into this magnificent exclamation,
Would that the criterion of a scholar's ability were the number and moral value of the truths which he has been the means of throwing into general circulation!
And he sums up all by declaring,
By what I have effected am I to be judged by my fellow men.
The truth is, that Mr. Coleridge has lived, as much as any man of his time, in literary and political society, and that he has sought every opportunity of keeping himself in the eye of the public, as restlessly as any charlatan who ever exhibited on the stage. To use his own words, "In 1794, when I had barely passed the verge of manhood, I published a small volume of juvenile poems." These poems, by dint of puffing, reached a third edition; and though Mr. Coleridge pretends now to think but little of them, it is amusing to see how vehemently he defends them against criticism, and how pompously he speaks of such paltry trifles. "They were marked by an ease and simplicity which I have studied, perhaps with inferior success, to bestow on my latter compositions." But he afterwards repents of this sneer at his later compositions, and tells us, that they have nearly reached his standard of perfection! Indeed, his vanity extends farther back than his juvenile poems; and he says, "For a school boy, I was above par in English versification, and had already produced two or three compositions, which I may venture to say, without reference to my age, were somewhat above mediocrity." Happily he has preserved one of those wonderful productions of his precocious boyhood, and our readers will judge for themselves what a clever child it was.
Underneath a huge oak-tree, There was of swine a huge company; That grunted as they crunch'd the mast, For that was ripe and fell full fast. Then they trotted away for the wind grew high, One acorn they left and no more might you spy.
It is a common remark, that wonderful children seldom perform the promises of their youth, and undoubtedly this fine effusion has not been followed in Mr. Coleridge's riper years by works of proportionate merit.
We see, then, that our author came very early into public notice; and from that time to this, he has not allowed one year to pass without endeavouring to extend his notoriety. His poems were soon followed (they may have been preceded) by a tragedy, entitled, the "Fall of Robespierre," a meagre performance, but one which, from the nature of the subject, attracted considerable attention. He also wrote a whole book, utterly incomprehensible to Mr. Southey, we are sure, on that Poet's Joan of Arc; and became as celebrated for his metaphysical absurdities, as his friend had become for the bright promise of genius exhibited by that unequal, but spirited poem. He next published a Series of political essays, entitled, the "Watchman," and "Conciones ad Populum." He next started up, fresh from the schools of Germany, as the principal writer in the Morning Post, a strong opposition paper. He then published various outrageous political poems, some of them of a gross personal nature. He afterwards assisted Mr. Wordsworth in planning his Lyrical Ballads; and contributing several poems to that collection, he shared in the notoriety of the Lake School. He next published a mysterious periodical work, "The Friend," in which he declared it was his intention to settle at once, and for ever, the principles of morality, religion, taste, manners, and the fine arts, but which died of a galloping consumption in the twenty-eighth week of its age. He then published the tragedy of "Remorse," which dragged out a miserable existence of twenty nights, on the boards of Drury-Lane, and then expired for ever, like the oil of the orchestral lamps. He then forsook the stage for the pulpit, and, by particular desire of his congregation, published two "Lay Sermons." He then walked in broad day-light into the shop of Mr. Murray, Albemarle Street, London, with two ladies hanging on each arm, Geraldine and Christabel,—a bold step for a person at all desirous of a good reputation, and most of the trade have looked shy at him since that exhibition. Since that time, however, he has contrived means of giving to the world a collected edition of all his poems, and advanced to the front of the stage with a thick octavo in each hand, all about himself and other Incomprehensibilities. We had forgot that he was likewise a contributor to Mr. Southey's Omniana, where the Editor of the Edinburgh Review is politely denominated an "ass," and then became himself a writer in the said Review. And to sum up "the strange eventful history" of this modest, and obscure, and retired person, we must mention, that in his youth he held forth in a vast number of Unitarian chapels—preached his way through Bristol, and "Brummagem," and Manchester, in a "blue coat and white waistcoat"; and in after years, when he was not so much afraid of "the scarlet woman," did, in a full suit of sables, lecture on Poesy, to "crowded, and, need I add, highly respectable audiences," at the Royal Institution. After this slight and imperfect outline of his poetical, oratorical, metaphysical, political, and theological exploits, our readers will judge, when they hear him talking of "his retirement and distance from the literary and political world," what are his talents for autobiography, and how far he has penetrated into the mysterious non-entities of his own character.
Mr. Coleridge has written conspicuously on the Association of Ideas, but his own do not seem to be connected either by time, place, cause and effect, resemblance, or contrast, and accordingly it is no easy matter to follow him through all the vagaries of his Literary Life. We are told,
At school I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time a very severe master.—I learnt from him that Poetry, even that of the loftiest and wildest odes, had a logic of its own as severe as that of science.—Lute, harp, and lyre; muse, muses, and inspirations; Pegasus, Parnassus, and Hippocrene; were all an abomination to him. In fancy I can almost hear him now exclaiming, "Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and Ink! Boy you mean! Muse! boy! Muse! your Nurse's daughter you mean! Pierian Spring! O Aye! the cloister Pump!"—Our classical knowledge was the least of the good gifts which we derived from his zealous and conscientious tutorage.
With the then head-master of the grammar-school, Christ Hospital, we were not personally acquainted; but we cannot help thinking that he has been singularly unfortunate in his Eulogist. He seems to have gone out of his province, and far out of his depth, when he attempted to teach boys the profoundest principles of Poetry. But we must also add, that we cannot credit this account of him; for this doctrine of poetry being at all times logical, is that of which Wordsworth and Coleridge take so much credit to themselves for the discovery; and verily it is one too wilfully absurd and extravagant to have entered into the head of an honest man, whose time must have been wholly occupied with the instruction of children. Indeed Mr. Coleridge's own poetical practices render this story incredible; for, during many years of his authorship, his diction was wholly at variance with such a rule, and the strain of his poetry as illogical as can be well imagined. When Mr. Bowyer prohibited his pupils from using, in their themes, the above-mentioned names, he did, we humbly submit, prohibit them from using the best means of purifying their taste and exalting their imagination. Nothing could be so graceful, nothing so natural, as classical allusions, in the exercises of young minds, when first admitted to the fountains of Greek and Latin Poetry; and the Teacher who could seek to dissuade their ingenious souls from such delightful dreams, by coarse, vulgar, and indecent ribaldry, instead of deserving the name of "sensible," must have been a low-minded vulgar fellow, fitter for the Porter than the Master of such an Establishment. But the truth probably is, that all this is a fiction of Mr. Coleridge, whose wit is at all times most execrable and disgusting. Whatever the merits of his Master were, Mr. Coleridge, even from his own account, seems to have derived little benefit from his instruction, and for the "inestimable advantage," of which he speaks, we look in vain through this Narrative. In spite of so excellent a teacher, we find Master Coleridge,
Even before my fifteenth year, bewildered in metaphysicks and in theological controversy. Nothing else pleased me. History and particular facts lost all interest in my mind. Poetry itself, yea novels and romances, became insipid to me. This preposterous pursuit was beyond doubt injurious, both to my natural powers and to the progress of my education.
This deplorable condition of mind continued "even unto my seventeenth year." And now our readers must prepare themselves for a mighty and wonderful change, wrought, all on a sudden, on the moral and intellectual character of this metaphysical Greenhorn. "Mr. Bowles' Sonnets, twenty in number, and just then published in a quarto volume (a most important circumstance!) were put into my hand!" To those sonnets, next to the School-master's lectures on Poetry, Mr. Coleridge attributes the strength, vigour, and extension, of his own very original Genius.
By those works, year after year, I was enthusiastically delighted and inspired. My earliest acquaintances will not have forgotten the undisciplined eagerness and impetuous zeal with which I labored to make proselytes, not only of my companions, but of all with whom I conversed, of whatever rank, and in whatever place. As my school finances did not permit me to purchase copies, I made, within less than a year and a half, more than forty transcriptions, as the best presents I could make to those who had in any way won my regard. My obligations to Mr. Bowles were indeed important, and for radical good!
There must be some grievous natural defect in that mind which, even at the age of seventeen, could act so insanely; and we cannot but think, that no real and healthy sensibility could have exaggerated to itself so grossly the merits of Bowles' Sonnets. They are undoubtedly most beautiful, and we willingly pay our tribute of admiration to the genius of the amiable writer; but they neither did nor could produce any such effects as are here described, except upon a mind singularly weak and helpless. We must, however, take the fact as we find it; and Mr. Coleridge's first step, after his worship of Bowles, was to see distinctly into the defects and deficiencies of Pope (a writer whom Bowles most especially admires, and has edited), and through all the false diction and borrowed plumage of Gray! But here Mr. Coleridge drops the subject of Poetry for the present, and proceeds to other important matters.
We regret that Mr. Coleridge has passed over without notice all the years which he spent "in the happy quiet of ever-honoured Jesus College, Cambridge." That must have been the most important period of his life, and was surely more worthy of record than the metaphysical dreams or the poetical extravagancies of his boyhood. He tells us, that he was sent to the University "an excellent Greek and Latin scholar, and a tolerable Hebraist"; and there might have been something rousing and elevating to young minds of genius and power, in his picture of himself, pursuits, visions, and attainments, during the bright and glorious morning of life, when he inhabited a dwelling of surpassing magnificence, guarded and hallowed, and sublimed by the Shadows of the Mighty. We should wish to know what progress he made there in his own favourite studies; what place he occupied, or supposed he occupied, among his numerous contemporaries of talent; how much he was inspired by the genius of the place; how far he "pierced the caves of old Philosophy," or sounded the depths of the Physical Sciences. All this unfortunately is omitted, and he hurries on to details often trifling and uninfluential, sometimes low, vile, and vulgar, and, what is worse, occasionally inconsistent with any feeling of personal dignity and self-respect.
After leaving College, instead of betaking himself to some respectable calling, Mr. Coleridge, with his characteristic modesty, determined to set on foot a periodical work called "The Watchman," that through it "all might know the truth." The price of this very useful article was "four-pence." Off he set on a tour to the north to procure subscribers, "preaching in most of the great towns as a hireless Volunteer, in a blue coat and white waistcoat, that not a rag of the Woman of Babylon might be seen on me." In preaching, his object was to show that our Saviour was the real son of Joseph, and that the Crucifixion was a matter of small importance. Mr. Coleridge is now a most zealous member of the Church of England—devoutly believes every iota in the thirty-nine articles, and that the Christian Religion is only to be found in its purity in the homilies and liturgy of that Church. Yet, on looking back to his Unitarian zeal, he exclaims,
O, never can I remember those days with either shame or regret! For I was most sincere, most disinterested! Wealth, rank, life itself, then seem'd cheap to me, compared with the interests of truth, and the will of my Maker. I cannot even accuse myself of having been actuated by vanity! for in the expansion of my enthusiasm I did not think of myself at all!
This is delectable. What does he mean by saying that life seemed cheap? What danger could there be in the performance of his exploits, except that of being committed as a Vagrant? What indeed could rank appear to a person thus voluntarily degraded? Or who would expect vanity to be conscious of its own loathsomeness? During this tour he seems to have been constantly exposed to the insults of the vile and the vulgar, and to have associated with persons whose company must have been most odious to a Gentleman. Greasy Tallow-chandlers, and pursey Woollen-drapers, and grim-featured dealers in Hard-ware, were his associates at Manchester, Derby, Nottingham, and Sheffield; and among them the light of truth was to be shed from its cloudy tabernacle in Mr. Coleridge's Pericranium. At the house of a "Brummagem Patriot" he appears to have got dead drunk with strong ale and tobacco, and in that pitiable condition he was exposed to his disciples, lying upon a sofa, "with my face like a wall that is white-washing, deathly pale, and with the cold drops of perspiration running down it from my forehead." Some one having said, "Have you seen a paper to-day, Mr. Coleridge?" the wretched man replied, with all the staring stupidity of his lamentable condition, "Sir! I am far from convinced that a Christian is permitted to read either newspapers, or any other works of merely political and temporary interest." This witticism quite enchanted his enlightened auditors, and they prolonged their festivities to an "early hour next morning." Having returned to London with a thousand subscribers on his list, the "Watchman" appeared in all his glory; but, alas! not on the day fixed for the first burst of his effulgence; which foolish delay incensed many of his subscribers. The Watchman, on his second appearance, spoke blasphemously, and made indecent applications of Scriptural language; then, instead of abusing Government and Aristocrats, as Mr. Coleridge had pledged himself to his constituents to do, he attacked his own Party; so that in seven weeks, before the shoes were old in which he travelled to Sheffield, the Watchman went the way of all flesh, and his remains were scattered "through sundry old iron shops," where for one penny could be purchased each precious relic. To crown all, "his London Publisher was a ——"; and Mr. Coleridge very narrowly escaped being thrown into jail for this his heroic attempt to shed over the manufacturing towns the illumination of knowledge. We refrain from making any comments on this deplorable story. This Philosopher, and Theologian, and Patriot, now retired to a village in Somersetshire, and, after having sought to enlighten the whole world, discovered that he himself was in utter darkness.
Doubts rushed in, broke upon me from the fountains of the great deep, and fell from the windows of heaven. The fontal truths of natural Religion, and the book of Revelation, alike contributed to the flood; and it was long ere my Ark touched upon Ararat, and rested. My head was with Spinoza, though my heart was with Paul and John....
We have no room here to expose, as it deserves to be exposed, the multitudinous political inconsistence of Mr. Coleridge, but we beg leave to state one single fact: He abhorred, hated, and despised Mr. Pitt,— and he now loves and reveres his memory. By far the most spirited and powerful of his poetical writings, is the War Eclogue, Slaughter, Fire, and Famine; and in that composition he loads the Minister with imprecations and curses, long, loud, and deep. But afterwards, when he has thought it prudent to change his Principles, he denies that he ever felt any indignation towards Mr. Pitt; and with the most unblushing falsehood declares, that at the very moment his muse was consigning him to infamy, death, and damnation, he would "have interposed his body between him and danger." We believe that all good men, of all parties, regard Mr. Coleridge with pity and contempt.
Of the latter days of his literary life, Mr. Coleridge gives us no satisfactory account. The whole of the second volume is interspersed with mysterious inuendoes. He complains of the loss of all his friends, not by death, but estrangement. He tries to account for the enmity of the world to him, a harmless and humane man, who wishes well to all created things, and "of his wondering finds no end." He upbraids himself with indolence, procrastination, neglect of his worldly concerns, and all other bad habits,—and then, with incredible inconsistency, vaunts loudly of his successful efforts in the cause of Literature, Philosophy, Morality, and Religion. Above all, he weeps and wails over the malignity of Reviewers, who have persecuted him almost from his very cradle, and seem resolved to bark him into the grave. He is haunted by the Image of a Reviewer wherever he goes. They "push him from his stool," and by his bedside they cry, "Sleep no more." They may abuse whomsoever they think fit, save himself and Mr. Wordsworth. All others are fair game—and he chuckles to see them brought down. But his sacred person must be inviolate, and rudely to touch it, is not high treason, it is impiety. Yet his "ever-honoured friend, the laurel-honouring Laureate," is a Reviewer—his friend Mr. Thomas Moore is a Reviewer—his friend Dr. Middleton, Bishop of Calcutta, was the Editor of a Review—almost every friend he ever had is a Reviewer;—and to crown all, he himself is a Reviewer. Every person who laughs at his silly Poems—and his incomprehensible metaphysics, is malignant—in which case, there can be little benevolence in this world; and while Mr. Francis Jeffrey is alive and merry, there can be no happiness here below for Mr. Samuel Coleridge.
And here we come to speak of a matter, which, though somewhat of a personal and private nature, is well deserving of mention in a Review of Mr. Coleridge's Literary Life, for sincerity is the first of virtues, and without it no man can be respectable or useful. He has, in this Work, accused Mr. Jeffrey of meanness—hypocrisy—falsehood—and breach of hospitality. That gentleman is able to defend himself—and his defence is no business of ours. But we now tell Mr. Coleridge, that instead of humbling his Adversary, he has heaped upon his own head the ashes of disgrace—and with his own blundering hands, so stained his character as a man of honour and high principles, that the mark can never be effaced. All the most offensive attacks on the writings of Wordsworth and Southey, had been made by Mr. Jeffrey before his visit to Keswick. Yet, does Coleridge receive him with open arms, according to his own account—listen, well-pleased, to all his compliments—talk to him for hours on his Literary Projects—dine with him as his guest at an Inn—tell him that he knew Mr. Wordsworth would be most happy to see him—and in all respects behave to him with a politeness bordering on servility. And after all this, merely because his own vile verses were crumpled up like so much waste paper, by the grasp of a powerful hand in the Edinburgh Review, he accuses Mr. Jeffrey of abusing hospitality which he never received, and forgets, that instead of being the Host, he himself was the smiling and obsequious Guest of the man he pretends to have despised. With all this miserable forgetfulness of dignity and self-respect, he mounts the high horse, from which he instantly is tumbled into the dirt; and in his angry ravings collects together all the foul trash of literary gossip to fling at his adversary, but which is blown stifling back upon himself with odium and infamy. But let him call to mind his own conduct, and talk not of Mr. Jeffrey. Many witnesses are yet living of his own egotism and malignity; and often has he heaped upon his "beloved Friend, the laurel-honouring Laureate," epithets of contempt, and pity, and disgust, though now it may suit his paltry purposes to worship and idolize. Of Mr. Southey we at all times think, and shall speak, with respect and admiration; but his open adversaries are, like Mr. Jeffrey, less formidable than his unprincipled Friends. When Greek and Trojan meet on the plain, there is an interest in the combat; but it is hateful and painful to think, that a hero should be wounded behind his back, and by a poisoned stiletto in the hand of a false Friend.
The concluding chapter of this Biography is perhaps the most pitiful of the whole, and contains a most surprising mixture of the pathetic and the ludicrous.
"Strange," says he, "as the delusion may appear, yet it is most true, that three years ago I did not know or believe that I had an enemy in the world; and now even my strongest consolations of gratitude are mingled with fear, and I reproach myself for being too often disposed to ask,—Have I one friend?"
We are thus prepared for the narration of some grievous cruelty, or ingratitude, or malice—some violation of his peace, or robbery of his reputation; but our readers will start when they are informed, that this melancholy lament is occasioned solely by the cruel treatment which his poem of Christabel received from the Edinburgh Review and other periodical Journals! It was, he tells us, universally admired in manuscript—he recited it many hundred times to men, women, and children, and always with an electrical effect—it was bepraised by most of the great Poets of the day—and for twenty years he was urged to give it to the world. But alas! no sooner had the Lady Christabel "come out," than all the rules of good-breeding and politeness were broken through, and the loud laugh of scorn and ridicule from every quarter assailed the ears of the fantastic Hoyden. But let Mr. Coleridge be consoled. Mr. Scott and Lord Byron are good-natured enough to admire Christabel, and the Public have not forgotten that his Lordship handed her Ladyship upon the stage. It is indeed most strange, that Mr., Coleridge is not satisfied with the praise of those he admires,—but pines away for the commendation of those he contemns.
Having brought down his literary life to the great epoch of the publication of Christabel, he there stops short; and that the world may compare him as he appears at that aera to his former self, when "he set sail from Yarmouth on the morning of the 10th September, 1798, in the Hamburg Packet," he has republished, from his periodical work the "Friend," seventy pages of Satyrane's Letters. As a specimen of his wit in 1798, our readers may take the following:—
We were all on the deck, but in a short time I observed marks of dismay. The Lady retired to the cabin in some confusion; and many of the faces round me assumed a very doleful and frog-coloured appearance; and within an hour the number of those on deck was lessened by one half. I was giddy, but not sick; and the giddiness soon went away, but left a feverishness and want of appetite, which I attributed, in great measure, to the "saeva mephitis" of the bilge-water; and it was certainly not decreased by the exportations from the cabin. However, I was well enough to join the able-bodied passengers, one of whom observed, not inaptly, that Momus might have discovered an easier way to see a man's inside than by placing a window in his breast. He needed only have taken a salt-water trip in a packet boat. I am inclined to believe, that a packet is far superior to a stage-coach as a means of making men open out to each other!
The importance of his observations during the voyage may be estimated by this one:—
At four o'clock I observed a wild duck swimming on the waves,a single solitary wild duck! It is not easy to conceive how interesting a thing it looked in that round objectless desert of waters!
At the house of Klopstock, brother of the Poet, he saw a portrait of Lessing, which he thus describes to the Public:—"His eyes were uncommonly like mine! if any thing, rather larger and more prominent! But the lower part of his face I and his nose—O what an exquisite expression of elegance and sensibility!" He then gives a long account of his interview with Klopstock the Poet, in which he makes that great man talk in a very silly, weak, and ignorant manner. Mr. Coleridge not only sets him right in all his opinions on English literature, but also is kind enough to correct, in a very authoritative and dictatorial tone, his erroneous views of the characteristic merits and defects of the most celebrated German Writers. He has indeed the ball in his own hands throughout the whole game; and Klopstock, who, he says, "was seventy-four years old, with legs enormously swollen," is beaten to a standstill. We are likewise presented with an account of a conversation which his friend W. held with the German Poet, in which the author of the Messiah makes a still more paltry figure. We can conceive nothing more odious and brutal, than two young ignorant lads from Cambridge forcing themselves upon the retirement of this illustrious old man, and, instead of listening with love, admiration and reverence, to his sentiments and opinions, insolently obtruding upon him their own crude and mistaken fancies,—contradicting imperiously every thing he advances,—taking leave of him with a consciousness of their own superiority,—and, finally, talking of him and his genius in terms of indifference bordering on contempt. This Mr. W. had the folly and the insolence to say to Klopstock, who was enthusiastically praising the Oberon of Wieland, that he never could see the smallest beauty in any part of that Poem.
We must now conclude our account of this "unaccountable" production. It has not been in our power to enter into any discussion with Mr. Coleridge on the various subjects of Poetry and Philosophy, which he has, we think, vainly endeavoured to elucidate. But we shall, on a future occasion, meet him on his own favourite ground. No less than 182 pages of the second volume are dedicated to the poetry of Mr. Wordsworth. He has endeavoured to define poetry—to explain the philosophy of metre—to settle the boundaries of poetic diction—and to show, finally, "What it is probable Mr. Wordsworth meant to say in his dissertation prefixed to his Lyrical Ballads." As Mr. Coleridge has not only studied the laws of poetical composition, but is a Poet of considerable powers, there are, in this part of his Book, many acute, ingenious, and even sensible observations and remarks; but he never knows when to have done,—explains what requires no explanation,—often leaves untouched the very difficulty he starts,—and when he has poured before us a glimpse of light upon the shapeless form of some dark conception, he seems to take a wilful pleasure in its immediate extinction, and leads "us floundering on, and quite astray," through the deepening shadows of interminable night.
One instance there is of magnificent promise, and laughable non-performance, unequalled in the annals of literary History. Mr. Coleridge informs us, that he and Mr. Wordsworth (he is not certain which is entitled to the glory of the first discovery) have found out the difference between Fancy and Imagination. This discovery, it is prophesied, will have an incalculable influence on the progress of all the Fine Arts. He has written a long chapter purposely to prepare our minds for the great discussion. The audience is assembled—the curtain is drawn up—and there, in his gown, cap, and wig, is sitting Professor Coleridge. In comes a servant with a letter; the Professor gets up, and, with a solemn voice, reads to the audience.—It is from an enlightened Friend; and its object is to shew, in no very courteous terms either to the Professor or his Spectators, that he may lecture, but that nobody will understand him. He accordingly makes his bow, and the curtain falls; but the worst of the joke is, that the Professor pockets the admittance-money,—for what reason, his outwitted audience are left, the best way they can, to "fancy or imagine."
But the greatest piece of Quackery in the Book is his pretended account of the Metaphysical System of Kant, of which he knows less than nothing. He wall not allow that there is a single word of truth in any of the French Expositions of that celebrated System, nor yet in any of our British Reviews. We do not wish to speak of what we do not understand, and therefore say nothing of Mr. Coleridge's Metaphysics....
We have done. We have felt it our duty to speak with severity of this book and its author—and we have given our readers ample opportunities to judge of the justice of our strictures. We have not been speaking in the cause of literature only, but, we conceive, in the cause of Morality and Religion. For it is not fitting that He should be held up as an example to the rising generation (but, on the contrary, it is most fitting that he should be exposed as a most dangerous model), who has alternately embraced, defended, and thrown aside all systems of Philosophy—and all creeds of Religion,—who seems to have no power of retaining an opinion,—no trust in the principles which he defends,—but who fluctuates from theory to theory, according as he is impelled by vanity, envy, or diseased desire of change,—and who, while he would subvert and scatter into dust those structures of knowledge, reared by the wise men of this and other generations, has nothing to erect in their room but the baseless and air-built fabrics of a dreaming Imagination.
ON THE COCKNEY SCHOOL OF POETRY
[From Blackwood's Magazine, October, 1817]
Our talk shall be (a theme we never tire on) Of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, (Our England's Dante)—Wordsworth—HUNT, and KEATS, The Muses' son of promise; and of what feats He yet may do.
While the whole critical world is occupied with balancing the merits, whether in theory or in execution, of what is commonly called THE LAKE SCHOOL, it is strange that no one seems to think it at all necessary to say a single word about another new school of poetry which has of late sprung up among us. This school has not, I believe, as yet received any name; but if I may be permitted to have the honour of christening it, it may henceforth be referred to by the designation of THE COCKNEY SCHOOL. Its chief Doctor and Professor is Mr. Leigh Hunt, a man certainly of some talents, of extravagant pretensions both in wit, poetry, and politics, and withal of exquisitely bad taste, and extremely vulgar modes of thinking and manners in all respects. He is a man of little education. He knows absolutely nothing of Greek, almost nothing of Latin, and his knowledge of Italian literature is confined to a few of the most popular of Petrarch's sonnets, and an imperfect acquaintance with Ariosto, through the medium of Mr. Hoole. As to the French poets, he dismisses them in the mass as a set of prim, precise, unnatural pretenders. The truth is, he is in a state of happy ignorance about them and all that they have done. He has never read Zaire nor Phedre. To those great German poets who have illuminated the last fifty years with a splendour to which this country has, for a long time, seen nothing comparable, Mr. Hunt is an absolute stranger. Of Spanish books he has read Don Quixote (in the translation of Motteux), and some poems of Lope de Vega in the imitations of my Lord Holland. Of all the great critical writers, either of ancient or of modern times, he is utterly ignorant, excepting only Mr. Jeffrey among ourselves.
With this stock of knowledge, Mr. Hunt presumes to become the founder of a new school of poetry, and throws away entirely the chance which he might have had of gaining some true poetical fame, had he been less lofty in his pretensions. The story of Rimini is not wholly undeserving of praise. It possesses some tolerable passages, which are all quoted in the Edinburgh Reviewer's account of the poem, and not one of which is quoted in the very illiberal attack upon it in the Quarterly. But such is the wretched taste in which the greater part of the work is executed, that most certainly no man who reads it once will ever be able to prevail upon himself to read it again. One feels the same disgust at the idea of opening Rimini, that impresses itself on the mind of a man of fashion, when he is invited to enter, for a second time, the gilded drawing-room of a little mincing boarding school mistress, who would fain have an At Home in her house. Every thing is pretence, affectation, finery, and gaudiness. The beaux are attorneys' apprentices, with chapeau bras and Limerick gloves—fiddlers, harp teachers, and clerks of genius: the belles are faded fan-twinkling spinsters, prurient vulgar misses from school, and enormous citizens' wives. The company are entertained with lukewarm negus, and the sounds of a paltry piano forte.
All the great poets of our country have been men of some rank in society, and there is no vulgarity in any of their writings; But Mr. Hunt cannot utter a dedication, or even a note, without betraying the Shibboleth of low birth and low habits. He is the ideal of a Cockney Poet. He raves perpetually about "greenfields," "jaunty streams," and "o'er-arching leafiness," exactly as a Cheapside shop-keeper does about the beauties of his box on the Camberwell road. Mr. Hunt is altogether unacquainted with the face of nature in her magnificent scenes; he has never seen any mountain higher than Highgate-hill, nor reclined by any stream more pastoral than the Serpentine River. But he is determined to be a poet eminently rural, and he rings the changes—till one is sick of him, on the beauties of the different "high views" which he has taken of God and nature, in the course of some Sunday dinner parties, at which he has assisted in the neighbourhood of London. His books are indeed not known in the country; his fame as a poet (and I might almost say, as a politician too) is entirely confined to the young attorneys and embryo-barristers about town. In the opinion of these competent judges, London is the world—and Hunt is a Homer.
Mr. Hunt is not disqualified by his ignorance and vulgarity alone, for being the founder of a respectable sect in poetry. He labours under the burden of a sin more deadly than either of these. The two great elements of all dignified poetry, religious feeling, and patriotic feeling, have no place in his mind. His religion is a poor tame dilution of the blasphemies of the Encyclopaedie—his patriotism a crude, vague, ineffectual, and sour Jacobinism. He is without reverence either for God or man; neither altar nor throne have any dignity in his eyes. He speaks well of nobody but two or three great dead poets, and in so speaking of them he does well; but, alas! Mr. Hunt is no conjurer [Greek: technae ou lanthanei]. He pretends, indeed, to be an admirer of Spencer and Chaucer, but what he praises in them is never what is most deserving of praise—it is only that which he humbly conceives, bears some resemblance to the more perfect productions of Mr. Leigh Hunt; and we can always discover, in the midst of his most violent ravings about the Court of Elizabeth, and the days of Sir Philip Sidney, and the Fairy Queen—that the real objects of his admiration are the Coterie of Hampstead and the Editor of the Examiner. When he talks about chivalry and King Arthur, he is always thinking of himself, and "a small party of friends, who meet once a-week at a Round Table, to discuss the merits of a leg of mutton, and of the subjects upon which we are to write."— Mr. Leigh Hunt's ideas concerning the sublime, and concerning his own powers, bear a considerable resemblance to those of his friend Bottom, the weaver, on the same subjects; "I will roar, that it shall do any man's heart good to hear me."—"I will roar you an 'twere any nightingale."
The poetry of Mr. Hunt is such as might be expected from the personal character and habits of its author. As a vulgar man is perpetually labouring to be genteel—in like manner, the poetry of this man is always on the stretch to be grand. He has been allowed to look for a moment from the anti-chamber into the saloon, and mistaken the waving of feathers and the painted floor for the sine qua non's of elegant society. He would fain be always tripping and waltzing, and is sorry that he cannot be allowed to walk about in the morning with yellow breeches and flesh-coloured silk stockings. He sticks an artificial rose-bud into his button hole in the midst of winter. He wears no neckcloth, and cuts his hair in imitation of the Prints of Petrarch. In his verses also he is always desirous of being airy, graceful, easy, courtly, and ITALIAN. If he had the smallest acquaintance with the great demigods of Italian poetry, he could never fancy that the style in which he writes, bears any, even the most remote resemblance to the severe and simple manner of Dante—the tender stillness of the lover of Laura—or the sprightly and good-natured unconscious elegance of the inimitable Ariosto. He has gone into a strange delusion about himself, and is just as absurd in supposing that he resembles the Italian Poets as a greater Quack still (Mr. Coleridge) is, in imagining that he is a Philosopher after the manner of Kant or Mendelshon—and that "the eye of Lessing bears a remarkable likeness to MINE," i.e., the eye of Mr. Samuel Coleridge.
 Mr. Wordsworth (meaning, we presume, to pay Mr. Coleridge a compliment), makes him look very absurdly,
"A noticeable man, with large grey eyes."
The extreme moral depravity of the Cockney School is another thing which is for ever thrusting itself upon the public attention, and convincing every man of sense who looks into their productions, that they who sport such sentiments can never be great poets. How could any man of high original genius ever stoop publicly, at the present day, to dip his fingers in the least of those glittering and rancid obscenities which float on the surface of Mr. Hunt's Hippocrene? His poetry is that of a man who has kept company with kept-mistresses. He talks indelicately like a tea-sipping milliner girl. Some excuse for him there might have been, had he been hurried away by imagination or passion. But with him indecency is a disease, and he speaks unclean things from perfect inanition. The very concubine of so impure a wretch as Leigh Hunt would be to be pitied, but alas! for the wife of such a husband! For him there is no charm in simple seduction; and he gloats over it only when accompanied with adultery and incest.
The unhealthy and jaundiced medium through which the Founder of the Cockney School views every thing like moral truth, is apparent, not only from his obscenity, but also from his want of respect for all that numerous class of plain upright men, and unpretending women, in which the real worth and excellence of human society consists. Every man is, according to Mr. Hunt, a dull potato-eating blockhead—of no greater value to God or man than any ox or dray-horse—who is not an admirer of Voltaire's romans, a worshipper of Lord Holland and Mr. Haydon and a quoter of John Buncle and Chaucer's Flower and Leaf. Every woman is useful only as a breeding machine, unless she is fond of reading Launcelot of the Lake, in an antique summer-house.
How such a profligate creature as Mr. Hunt can pretend to be an admirer of Mr. Wordsworth, is to us a thing altogether inexplicable. One great charm of Wordsworth's noble compositions consists in the dignified purity of thought, and the patriarchal simplicity of feeling, with which they are throughout penetrated and imbued. We can conceive a vicious man admiring with distant awe and spectacle of virtue and purity; but if he does so sincerely, he must also do so with the profoundest feeling of the error of his own ways, and the resolution to amend them. His admiration must be humble and silent, not pert and loquacious. Mr. Hunt praises the purity of Wordsworth as if he himself were pure, his dignity as if he also were dignified. He is always like the ball of Dung in the fable, pleasing himself, and amusing by-standers with his "nos poma natamus." For the person who writes Rimini, to admire the Excursion, is just as impossible as it would be for a Chinese polisher of cherry-stones, or gilder of tea-cups, to burst into tears at the sight of the Theseus or the Torso.
The Founder of the Cockney School would fain claim poetical kindred with Lord Byron and Thomas Moore. Such a connexion would be as unsuitable for them as for William Wordsworth. The days of Mr. Moore's follies are long since over; and, as he is a thorough gentleman, he must necessarily entertain the greatest contempt for such an under-bred person as Leigh Hunt. But Lord Byron! How must the haughty spirit of Lara and Harold contemn the subaltern sneaking of our modern tuft-hunter. The insult which he offered to Lord Byron in the dedication of Rimini,—in which he, a paltry cockney newspaper scribbler, had the assurance to address one of the most nobly-born of English Patricians, and one of the first geniuses whom the world ever produced, as "My dear Byron," although it may have been forgotten and despised by the illustrious person whom it most nearly concerned,—excited a feeling of utter loathing and disgust in the public mind, which will always be remembered whenever the name of Leigh Hunt is mentioned. We dare say Mr. Hunt has some fine dreams about the true nobility being the nobility of talent, and flatters himself, that with those who acknowledge only that sort of rank, he himself passes for being the peer of Byron. He is sadly mistaken. He is as completely a Plebeian in his mind as he is in his rank and station in society. To that highest and unalienated nobility which the great Roman satirist styles "sola atque unica," we fear his pretensions would be equally unavailing.
The shallow and impotent pretensions, tenets, and attempts, of this man,—and the success with which his influence seems to be extending itself among a pretty numerous, though certainly a very paltry and pitiful, set of readers,—have for the last two or three years been considered by us with the most sickening aversion. The very culpable manner in which his chief poem was reviewed in the Edinburgh Review (we believe it is no secret, at his own impatient and feverish request, by his partner in the Round Table), was matter of concern to more readers than ourselves. The masterly pen which inflicted such signal chastisement on the early licentiousness of Moore, should not have been idle on that occasion. Mr. Jeffrey does ill when he delegates his important functions into such hands as Mr. Hazlitt. It was chiefly in consequence of that gentleman's allowing Leigh Hunt to pass unpunished through a scene of slaughter, which his execution might so highly have graced that we came to the resolution of laying before our readers a series of essays on the Cockney School—of which here terminates the first. Z.
THE COCKNEY SCHOOL OF POETRY
[From Blackwood's Magazine, July, 1818]
Our hatred and contempt of Leigh Hunt as a writer, is not so much owing to his shameless irreverence to his aged and afflicted king—to his profligate attacks on the character of the king's sons—to his low-born insolence to that aristocracy with whom he would in vain claim the alliance of one illustrious friendship—to his paid panderism to the vilest passions of that mob of which he is himself a firebrand—to the leprous crust of self-conceit with which his whole moral being is indurated—to that loathsome vulgarity which constantly clings round him like a vermined garment from St. Giles'—to that irritable temper which keeps the unhappy man, in spite even of his vanity, in a perpetual fret with himself and all the world beside, and that shews itself equally in his deadly enmities and capricious friendships,—our hatred and contempt of Leigh Hunt, we say, is not so much owing to these and other causes, as to the odious and unnatural harlotry of his polluted muse. We were the first to brand with a burning iron the false face of this kept-mistress of a demoralizing incendiary. We tore off her gaudy veil and transparent drapery, and exhibited the painted cheeks and writhing limbs of the prostitute. We denounced to the execration of the people of England, the man who had dared to write in the solitude of a cell, whose walls ought to have heard only the sighs of contrition and repentance, a lewd tale of incest, adultery, and murder, in which the violation of Nature herself was wept over, palliated, justified, and held up to imitation, and the violators themselves worshipped as holy martyrs. The story of Rimini had begun to have its admirers; but their deluded minds were startled at our charges,—and on reflecting upon the character of the poem, which they had read with a dangerous sympathy, not on account of its poetical merit, which is small indeed, but on account of those voluptuous scenes, so dangerous even to a pure imagination, when insidiously painted with the seeming colours of virtue,—they were astounded at their own folly and their own danger, and consigned the wretched volume to that ignominious oblivion, which, in a land of religion and morality, must soon be the doom of all obscene and licentious productions.
The story of Rimini is heard of no more. But Leigh Hunt will not be quiet. His hebdomadal hand [**Pointing hand symbol] is held up, even on the Sabbath, against every man of virtue and genius in the land; but the great defamer claims to himself an immunity from that disgrace which he knows his own wickedness has incurred,—the Cockney calumniator would fain hold his own disgraced head sacred from the iron fingers of retribution. But that head shall be brought low—aye—low "as heaped up justice" ever sunk that of an offending scribbler against the laws of Nature and of God.
Leigh Hunt dared not, Hazlitt dared not, to defend the character of the "Story of Rimini." A man may venture to say that in verse which it is perilous to utter in plain prose. Even they dared not to affirm to the people of England, that a wife who had committed incest with her husband's brother, ought on her death to be buried in the same tomb with her fraticidal [Transcriber's note: sic] paramour, and that tomb to be annually worshipped by the youths and virgins of their country. And therefore Leigh Hunt flew into a savage passion against the critic who had chastised his crime, pretended that he himself was insidiously charged with the offences which he had applauded and celebrated in others, and tried to awaken the indignation of the public against his castigator, as if he had been the secret assassin of private character, who was but the open foe of public enormity. The attempt was hopeless,— the public voice has lifted up against Hunt,—and sentence of excommunication from the poets of England has been pronounced, enrolled, and ratified.
There can be no radical distinction allowed between the private and public character of a poet. If a poet sympathizes with and justifies wickedness in his poetry, he is a wicked man. It matters not that his private life may be free from wicked actions. Corrupt his moral principles must be,—and if his conduct has not been flagrantly immoral, the cause must be looked for in constitution, &c., but not in conscience. It is therefore of little or no importance, whether Leigh Hunt be or be not a bad private character. He maintains, that he is a most excellent private character, and that he would blush to tell the world how highly he is thought of by an host of respectable friends. Be it so,—and that his vanity does not delude him. But this is most sure, that, in such a case, the world will never be brought to believe even the truth. The world is not fond of ingenious distinctions between the theory and the practice of morals. The public are justified in refusing to hear a man plead in favour of his character, when they hold in their hands a work of his in which all respect to character is forgotten. We must reap the fruit of what we sow; and if evil and unjust reports have arisen against Leigh Hunt as a man, and unluckily for him it is so, he ought not to attribute the rise of such reports to the political animosities which his virulence has excited, but to the real and obvious cause—his voluptuous defence of crimes revolting to Nature.
The publication of the voluptuous story of Rimini was followed, it would appear, by mysterious charges against Leigh Hunt in his domestic relations. The world could not understand the nature of his poetical love of incest; and instead of at once forgetting both the poem and the poet, many people set themselves to speculate, and talk, and ask questions, and pry into secrets with which they had nothing to do, till at last there was something like an identification of Leigh Hunt himself with Paolo, the incestuous hero of Leigh Hunt's chief Cockney poem. This was wrong, and, we believe, wholly unjust; but it was by no means unnatural; and precisely what Leigh Hunt is himself in the weekly practice of doing to other people without the same excuse. Leigh Hunt has now spoken out so freely to the public on the subject, that there can be no indelicacy in talking of it, in as far as it respects him, at least....
There is no need for us to sink down this unhappy man into deeper humiliation. Never before did the abuse and prostitution of talents bring with them such prompt and memorable punishment. The pestilential air which Leigh Hunt breathed forth into the world to poison and corrupt, has been driven stiflingly back upon himself, and he who strove to spread the infection of loathsome licentiousness among the tender moral constitutions of the young, has been at length rewarded, as it was fitting he should be, by the accusation of being himself guilty of those crimes which it was the object of "The Story of Rimini" to encourage and justify in others. The world knew nothing of him but from his works; and were they blameable (even though they erred) in believing him capable of any enormities in his own person, whose imagination feasted and gloated on the disgusting details of adultery and incest? They were repelled and sickened by such odious and unnatural wickedness—he was attracted and delighted. What to them was the foulness of pollution, seemed to him the beauty of innocence. What to them was the blast from hell, to him was the air from heaven. They read and they condemned. They asked each other "What manner of man is this?" The charitable were silent. It would perhaps be hard to call them uncharitable who spoke aloud. Thoughts were associated with his name which shall be nameless by us; and at last the wretched scribbler himself has had the gross and unfeeling folly to punish them all to the world, and that too in a tone of levity that could have been becoming only on our former comparatively trivial charges against him of wearing yellow breeches, and dispensing with the luxury of a neckcloth. He shakes his shoulders, according to his rather iniquitous custom, at being told that he is suspected of adultery and incest! A pleasant subject of merriment, no doubt, it is—though somewhat embittered by the intrusive remembrance of that unsparing castigator of vice, Mr. Gifford, and clouded over by the melancholy breathed from the shin-bone of his own poor old deceased grandmother. What a mixture of the horrible and absurd! And the man who thus writes is—not a Christian, for that he denies—but, forsooth, a poet! one of the
Great spirits who on earth are sojourning!
But Leigh Hunt is not guilty, in the above paragraph, of shocking levity alone,—he is guilty of falsehood. It is not true, that he learns for the first time, from that anonymous letter (so vulgar, that we could almost suspect him of having written it himself) what charges were in circulation against him. He knew it all before. Has he forgotten to whom he applied for explanation when Z.'s sharp essay on the Cockney Poetry cut him to the heart? He knows what he said upon those occasions, and let him ponder upon it. But what could induce him to suspect the amiable Bill Hazlitt, "him, the immaculate," of being Z.? It was this,—he imagined that none but that foundered artist could know the fact of his feverish importunities to be reviewed by him in the Edinburgh Review. And therefore, having almost "as fine an intellectual touch" as "Bill the painter" himself, he thought he saw Z. lurking beneath the elegant exterior of that highly accomplished man.
Dear Hazlitt, whose tact intellectual is such, That it seems to feel truth as one's fingers do touch.
But, for the present, we have nothing more to add. Leigh Hunt is delivered into our hands to do with him as we will. Our eyes shall be upon him, and unless he amend his ways, to wither and to blast him. The pages of the Edinburgh Review, we are confident, are henceforth shut against him. One wicked Cockney will not again be permitted to praise another in that journal, which, up to the moment when incest and adultery were defended in its pages, had, however openly at war with religion, kept at least upon decent terms with the cause of morality. It was indeed a fatal day for Mr. Jeffrey, when he degraded both himself and his original coadjutors, by taking into pay such an unprincipled blunderer as Hazlitt. He is not a coadjutor, he is an accomplice. The day is perhaps not far distant, when the Charlatan shall be stripped to the naked skin, and made to swallow his own vile prescriptions. He and Leigh Hunt are
Arcades ambo Et cantare pares—
Shall we add,
et respondere parati?
Z. ON KEATS
[From Blackwood's Magazine, August, 1818]
COCKNEY SCHOOL OF POETRY
—— OF KEATS, THE MUSES' SON OF PROMISE, AND WHAT FEATS HE YET MAY DO, &C.
Of all the manias of this mad age, the most incurable, as well as the most common, seems to be no other than the Metromanie. The just celebrity of Robert Burns and Miss Baillie has had the melancholy effect of turning the heads of we know not how many farm-servants and unmarried ladies; our very footmen compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her band-box. To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr. John Keats. This young man appears to have received from nature talents of an excellent, perhaps even of a superior order— talents which, devoted to the purposes of any useful profession, must have rendered him a respectable, if not an eminent citizen. His friends, we understand, destined him to the career of medicine, and he was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady to which we have alluded. Whether Mr. John had been sent home with a diuretic or composing draught to some patient far gone in the poetical mania, we have not heard. This much is certain, that he has caught the infection, and that thoroughly. For some time we were in hopes, that he might get off with a violent fit or two; but of late the symptoms are terrible. The phrenzy of the "Poems" was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of "Endymion." We hope, however, that in so young a person, and with a constitution originally so good, even now the disease is not utterly incurable. Time, firm treatment, and rational restraint, do much for many apparently hopeless invalids; and if Mr. Keats should happen, at some interval of reason, to cast his eye upon our pages, he may perhaps be convinced of the existence of his malady, which, in such cases, is often all that is necessary to put the patient in a fair way of being cured.
The readers of the Examiner newspaper were informed, some time ago, by a solemn paragraph, in Mr. Hunt's best style, of the appearance of two new stars of glorious magnitude and splendour in the poetical horizon of the land of Cockaigne. One of these turned out, by and by, to be no other than Mr. John Keats. This precocious adulation confirmed the wavering apprentice in his desire to quit the gallipots, and at the same time excited in his too susceptible mind a fatal admiration for the character and talents of the most worthless and affected of all the versifiers of our time. One of his first productions was the following sonnet, "written on the day when Mr. Leigh Hunt left prison." It will be recollected, that the cause of Hunt's confinement was a series of libels against his sovereign, and that its fruit was the odious and incestuous "Story of Rimini."
What though, for shewing truth to flattered state, Kind Hunt was shut in prison, yet has he, In his immortal spirit been as free As the sky-searching lark, and as elate. Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait? Think you he nought but prison walls did see, Till, so unwilling, thou unturn'dst the key? Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate! In Spenser's halls! he strayed, and bowers fair, Culling enchanted flowers; and he flew With daring Milton! through the fields of air; To regions of his own his genius true Took happy flights. Who shall his fame impair When thou art dead, and all thy wretched crew?
The absurdity of the thought in this sonnet is, however, if possible, surpassed in another, "addressed to Haydon" the painter, that clever, but most affected artist, who as little resembles Raphael in genius as he does in person, notwithstanding the foppery of having his hair curled over his shoulders in the old Italian fashion. In this exquisite piece it will be observed, that Mr. Keats classes together WORDSWORTH, HUNT, and HAYDON, as the three greatest spirits of the age, and that he alludes to himself, and some others of the rising brood of Cockneys, as likely to attain hereafter an equally honourable elevation. Wordsworth and Hunt! what a juxta-position! The purest, the loftiest, and, we do not fear to say it, the most classical of living English poets, joined together in the same compliment with the meanest, the filthiest, and the most vulgar of Cockney poetasters. No wonder that he who could be guilty of this should class Haydon with Raphael, and himself with Spenser.
Great spirits now on earth are sojourning; He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake, Who on Helvellyn's summit, wide awake, Catches his freshness from Archangel's wing: He of the rose, the violet, the spring, The social smile, the chain for Freedom's sake: And lo!—whose steadfastness would never take A meaner sound than Raphael's whispering. And other spirits there are standing apart Upon the forehead of the age to come; These, these will give the world another heart, And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum Of mighty workings?— Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.
The nations are to listen and be dumb! and why, good Johnny Keats? because Leigh Hunt is editor of the Examiner, and Haydon has painted the judgment of Solomon, and you and Cornelius Webb, and a few more city sparks, are pleased to look upon yourselves as so many future Shakespeares and Miltons! The world has really some reason to look to its foundations! Here is a tempestas in matula with a vengeance. At the period when these sonnets were published, Mr. Keats had no hesitation in saying, that he looked on himself as "not yet a glorious denizen of the wide heaven of poetry," but he had many fine soothing visions of coming greatness, and many rare plans of study to prepare him for it....