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CHAPTER XII.-A chapter of requests and premonitions
CHAPTER(XIII. On the imagination, or esemplastic power
CHAPTER (XIV-Occasion of the Lyrical Ballads, and the
CHAPTER XV.-The specific symptoms of poetic power
CHAPTER XVI.-Striking points of difference between the
CHAPTER XVII.-Examination of the tenets peculiar to
I. EARLY YEARS.
THE autobiographical letters, which Coleridge addressed to his friend Thomas Poole,' and meant for no eye but his, have preserved for posterity an invaluable record of his early mental life. They reveal to us the future transcendentalist in surroundings peculiarly fitted to nourish his congenital temper. A fretful, sensitive, and passionate child, Coleridge at all times shunned the companionship of his playmates, and substituted for their pastimes a world of his own creation. To this world, fashioned largely from the Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, and other works of wonder and fantasy, he attached a livelier faith than to the actual world of his senses. And when his father discoursed to him of the stars, dwelling upon their magnitude and their wondrous motions, he heard the tale 'with a profound delight and admiration' but without the least impulse to question its veracity. 'My mind had been habituated to the vast, and I never regarded my senses as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions, not by my sight, even at that age.' Nor did the habit of self-detachment from the actual world, thus early acquired, make of Coleridge a mere day-dreamer, the slave of his fancies: it served, in his own opinion, an educational end of the highest value. 'Should children,' he asks in the same letter, 'be permitted to read romances and relations of giants and magi
1 See Letters of S. T. Coleridge, edited by E. H. Coleridge, i. 4-21.
cians and genii?' And he answers, 'I have formed my faith in the affirmative. I know no other way of giving the mind a love of the Great and the Whole.' For those (he adds) who are educated through the senses 'seem to want a sense which I possess. The universe to them is but
a mass of little things'. It is evident that the attitude of the empiricist, the avowed or actual self-surrender of the mind to the disconnected impressions of sense, was foreign to Coleridge from the first.
In his ninth year Coleridge migrated to Christ's Hospital: and here the same habit of self-abstraction from his visible surroundings enforced itself. In the first impulse of homesickness, he was absorbed in memories of the scenes from which he was so early doomed to be parted for ever: then, as this yearning gradually abated, the passion for speculation took its place, and he made his first acquaintance with the philosophy of mysticism in the writings of the Neoplatonists. But almost at the same time the world of phenomena claimed his attention. The arrival of his brother Luke in London to study at the London Hospital gave a new direction to his thoughts, and soon he was deep in all the medical literature on which he could lay his hands. Such reading, as we can readily understand, seemed to reveal to him a new interpretation of things, an interpretation which it was so difficult to bring into line with his idealistic speculations that it practically remained unaffected by them. Hence the transition to Voltaire was easy. 'After I had read Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, I sported infidel: but my infidel vanity never touched my heart.' Thus early was he awakened to consciousness of that inward discord which it was the task of his life
1 Letters, ib. p. 16.
2 See Lamb's Essay, Christ's Hospital five-and-thirty years ago.
3 Gillman's Life of Coleridge, p. 23.
to explain and to resolve-the discord engendered by the opposing claims of the senses and intellect on the one hand, and of what he here chooses to call the heart on the other.
Meantime Coleridge's poetical faculty lay for a long time dormant; for the contributions to Boyer's album were regarded by him as little more than mechanical exercises. Nor could any genuine inspiration be looked for without a previous quickening of his emotional life, sufficiently intense to call for the relief of self-expression. This needful stirring of the heart soon came, however, and from two sources, the poetry of Bowles, and his attachment to Mary Evans; a juxtaposition which need not occasion a smile, if we remember that in Bowles's sonnets Coleridge found the first genuinely unconventional treatment of Nature, the first genuine stimulus to an understanding of her 'perpetual revelation'.
With the exercise of his poetical powers came also the first attempts at an analysis of the nature of poetry. This interest he owed to the judicious training of Boyer, which had also a salutary effect on Coleridge's own artistic methods. From Boyer he learnt 'that poetry, even that of the loftiest, and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own as severe as that of science and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more fugitive causes'. A new and attractive field of inquiry was thus opened out to him: and in the last year of his school-life, and the early ones of his residence at Cambridge, he devoted much speculative energy 'to a solid foundation (of poetical criticism) on which permanently to ground my opinions, in the component faculties of the human mind itself, and their comparative dignity and importance'. These speculations, although they bore
1 Biog. Lit. i. 4.
2 Ib. i. 14.