ePub 版

sense, and even humor when informally conversing, while his lectures, delivered for the most part extemporaneously, have, next to certain famous chapters in the "Biographia Literaria," established his critical reputation.

A single anecdote, one of many recorded by his biographers, will serve to illustrate both his readiness at impromptu lecturing and his remarkable fund of metaphysical knowledge. He was informed one morning, so Gillman relates, that he was expected to lecture the same evening before the London Philosophical Society, but no subject was suggested. At the appointed time Coleridge was present, as he often was not, to be introduced. The president of the Society announced that "Mr. Coleridge will deliver a lecture on 'The Growth of the Individual Mind';" whereupon Coleridge whispered to Gillman— "A pretty stiff subject they have chosen for me." He began by saying: "The lecture I am about to give this evening is purely extempore. Should you find a nominative case looking out for a verb, or a fatherless verb for a nominative case, you must excuse it. It is purely extempore, though I have thought and read much on the subject." The lecture is said to have been "most brilliant, eloquent, and logically consecutive"; it lasted one hour and a half, being concluded on a pre-arranged signal from Gillman.

Extraordinary poetic and mental powers were combined in this remarkable man, and with them a weakness as great as his endowments were high. Southey, the friend of his youth, and the guardian of his family, wrote of him to Wordsworth: "His mind is in a perpetual St. Vitus's dance—eternal activity without action. At times he feels mortified that he should have done so little, but this feeling never produces any exertion. 'I will begin tomorrow,' he says, and thus he has been all his life long letting to-day slip." And he adds a little later: "No human being has had more talents allotted." The fame of Coleridge, like that of other men with similar weak

nesses, has perhaps grown as much out of his defects of character as from his considerable achievements as a poet and philosopher. If there is such a thing as "the glory of the imperfect," then surely Coleridge's life and work are entitled to no inconsiderable share of glory. What he planned and did not do, what he left imcomplete, what he dreamed of but could not perfect, might be spiritually credited to him. And in the ultimate evaluation of him this very incompleteness may perhaps be accounted something of a virtue.

In the popular mind Coleridge is a poet, not a prose writer. He is remembered as the author of "The Ancient Mariner," "Christabel," "Kubla Khan," and perhaps of several other poems. Poet though he was, and of a high order, he wrote far more prose than verse. One volume might easily contain all his poems, including his two dramas. The finest of his poems were composed by the time he was thirty, though several noteworthy odes and sonnets belong to his middle life. But his prose writings number several volumes of criticism, philosophy, and religious reflections, published during his own lifetime, and others issued after his death.

Of Coleridge's prose works the "Biographia Literaria” has the greatest interest for the reader of to-day. It was published in 1817, though finished a year earlier; thirty years later a new edition appeared, edited, with a biographical supplement, by the poet's nephew and son-in-law, Henry Nelson Coleridge, and his daughter, Sara Coleridge. "Biographia Literaria," or "Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions," is not an autobiography proper. No orderly sequence of events in the author's life is attempted. Instead of narration we find in the "Biographia" mainly exposition and description. In the first chapter Coleridge set forth with great clearness his purpose; and it must be said that, except for certain characteristic digressions, he adhered to his announced intention with admirable consistency:

It will be found that the least of what I have written concerns myself personally. I have used the narration chiefly for the purpose of giving a continuity to the work, in part for the sake of miscellaneous reflections suggested to me by particular events, but still more as introductory to a statement of my principles in Politics, Religion, and Philosophy, and an application of the rules deduced from philosophical principles, to poetry and criticism. But of the objects which I proposed to myself, it was not the least important to effect, as far as possible, a settlement of the long continued controversy concerning the true nature of poetic diction; and at the same time to define with the utmost impartiality the real poetic character of the poet, by whose writings this controversy was first kindled, and has been since fuelled and fanned.

In general, then, Coleridge's purpose in the "Biographia Literaria" was to state, with illustrations, his own philosophical principles and to apply them definitely to poetry and criticism. More specifically, he proposed to himself the task of discussing poetic diction with a view to determining the merits and defects of Wordsworth's verse. Coleridge and Wordsworth, it will be recalled, had collaborated in the production of "Lyrical Ballads," the little volume of poems published by Cottle in 1798, and republished two years later with the famous preface by Wordsworth setting forth his theory of poetic subjectmatter and diction. That part of the "Biographia", (chapters fourteen to twenty) dealing with Wordsworth's theory and practice is undoubtedly the most valuable piece of critical analysis in the entire work and one of the most important in the history of English literary criticism. Coleridge argues that the language of every-day life, that actually used by simple folk, does not constitute true poetic diction as Wordsworth contended. He shows that Wordsworth is fortunately not consistent in applying his own creed, and that, indeed, he is most poetic when he violates it. "Images," says Coleridge, "however beautiful, though faithfully copied from nature and as accurately represented in words, do not of themselves characterize the poet." And he goes on to remark that such images give evidence of original genius only when "they are modified by a predominant passion, or associated thoughts

[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]


spres & Gorman culture im?

[ocr errors]

more than any other Englishman, brought back home their teachings and disseminated them. So fully did he quote them in the "Biographia" that he was accused, with some justice, of plagiarism. So assimilative a mind as Coleridge's, morally weakened through indulgence in opium, would hardly fail to appropriate fresh ideas and reproduce them, perhaps unconsciously, as his own.


Included in the "Biographia" are three letters"Satyrane's Letters"-written by Coleridge while in Germany. They give his impressions of persons and places in a familiar style. The Englishman's comment on foreign manners and the account of several visits to the German poet Klopstock's house are of interest. The "Biographia" concludes with an avowal by Coleridge of his belief in Christianity as taught by the Established Church and of his conviction that Religion and Reason are in harmony. Early in life he had temporarily turned Unitarian, but he soon returned to the trinitarian faith of his fathers, though it would not be easy to define the creed of so subtle a metaphysician as Coleridge.

The "Biographia Literaria" is in the main a book of critical opinions, relieved here and there by the recounting of some personal experience or the turning aside to make a defence. Little of Coleridge's own life can be learned from it that has not been told elsewhere. When it was published he was forty-five and had entered upon the last and most serene period of his troubled life; looking back over the promising years of his youth and the all but wasted years of his maturity, he gathered up such fragments of critical and philosophical accomplishment as he thought most worthy and recorded them. As an expression of his intellectual life, particularly that part of it concerned with poetic theory, the book is invaluable. It is not easy reading, but there are few books which more abundantly reward the reader for his time and application. To interpret the thought of so versatile, so full, and so rarely gifted a mind as Coleridge's is of itself a high

« 上一頁繼續 »