criticisms, containing evidence of the truest insight, and a marvellous appreciation of the judicial “sanity” which raises the greatest name in literature far above even the highest of the poets who approached him.
As a poet Coleridge’s own place is safe. His niche in the great gallery of English poets is secure. Of no one can it be more emphatically said that at his highest he was “of imagination all compact.” He does not possess the fiery pulse and humaneness of Burns, but the exquisite perfection of his metre and the subtle alliance of his thought and expression must always secure for him the warmest admiration of true lovers of poetic art. In his early poems may be found traces of the fierce struggle of his youth. The most remarkable is the Monody on the Death of Chatterton and the Religious Musings. In what may be called his second period, the ode entitled France, considered by Shelley the finest in the language, is most memorable. The whole soul of the poet is reflected in the Ode to Dejection. The well-known lines—
|“||O Lady! we receive but what we give,|
And in our life alone does nature live;
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud,”
with the passage which follows, contain more vividly, perhaps, than anything which Coleridge has written, the expression of the shaping and colouring function which he assigns, in the Biographia Literaria, to imagination. Christabel and the Ancient Mariner have so completely taken possession of the highest place, that it is needless to do more than allude to them. The supernatural has never received such treatment as in these two wonderful productions of his genius, and though the first of them remains a torso, it is the loveliest torso in the gallery of English literature. Although Coleridge had, for many years before his death, almost entirely forsaken poetry, the few fragments of work which remain, written in later years, show little trace of weakness, although they are wanting in the unearthly melody which imparts such a charm to Kubla Khan, Love and Youth and Age. (G. D. B.; H. Ch.)
In the latter part of his life, and for the generation which followed, Coleridge was ranked by many young English churchmen of liberal views as the greatest religious thinker of their time. As Carlyle has told in his Life of Sterling, the poet’s distinction, in the eyes of the younger churchmen with philosophic interests, lay in his having recovered and preserved his Christian faith after having passed through periods of rationalism and Unitarianism, and faced the full results of German criticism and philosophy. His opinions, however, were at all periods somewhat mutable, and it would be difficult to state them in any form that would hold good for the whole even of his later writings. He was, indeed, too receptive of thought impressions of all kinds to be a consistent systematizer. As a schoolboy, by his own account, he was for a time a Voltairean, on the strength of a perusal of the Philosophical Dictionary. At college, as we have seen, he turned Unitarian. From that position he gradually moved towards pantheism, a way of thought to which he had shown remarkable leanings when, as a schoolboy, he discoursed of Neo-Platonism to Charles Lamb, or—if we may trust his recollection—translated the hymns of Synesius. Early in life, too, he met with the doctrines of Jacob Behmen, of whom, in the Biographia Literaria, he speaks with affection and gratitude as having given him vital philosophic guidance. Between pantheism and Unitarianism he seems to have balanced till his thirty-fifth year, always tending towards the former in virtue of the recoil from “anthropomorphism” which originally took him to Unitarianism. In 1796, when he named his first child David Hartley, but would not have him baptized, he held by the “Christian materialism” of the writer in question, whom in his Religious Musings he terms “wisest of mortal kind.”
When, again, he met Wordsworth in 1797, the two poets freely and sympathetically discussed Spinoza, for whom Coleridge always retained a deep admiration; and when in 1798 he gave up his Unitarian preaching, he named his second child Berkeley, signifying a new allegiance, but still without accepting Christian rites otherwise than passively. Shortly afterwards he went to Germany, where he began to study Kant, and was much captivated by Lessing. In the Biographia he avows that the writings of Kant “more than any other work, at once invigorated and disciplined my understanding”; yet the gist of his estimate there is that Kant left his system undeveloped, as regards his idea of the Noumenon, for fear of orthodox persecution—a judgment hardly compatible with any assumption of Kant’s Christian orthodoxy, which was notoriously inadequate. But after his stay at Malta, Coleridge announced to his friends that he had given up his “Socinianism” (of which ever afterwards he spoke with asperity), professing a return to Christian faith, though still putting on it a mystical construction, as when he told Crabb Robinson that “Jesus Christ was a Platonic philosopher.” At this stage he was much in sympathy with the historico-rationalistic criticism of the Old Testament, as carried on in Germany; giving his assent, for instance, to the naturalistic doctrine of Schiller’s Die Sendung Moses. From about 1810 onwards, however, he openly professed Christian orthodoxy, while privately indicating views which cannot be so described. And even his published speculations were such as to draw from J. H. Newman a protest that they took “a liberty which no Christian can tolerate,” and carried him to “conclusions which were often heathen rather than Christian.” This would apply to some of his positions concerning the Logos and the Trinity. After giving up Unitarianism he claimed that from the first he had been a Trinitarian on Platonic lines; and some of his latest statements of the doctrine are certainly more pantheistic than Christian.
The explanation seems to be that while on Christian grounds he repeatedly denounced pantheism as being in all its forms equivalent to atheism, he was latterly much swayed by the thought of Schelling in the pantheistic direction which was natural to him. To these conflicting tendencies were probably due his self-contradictions on the problem of original sin and the conflicting claims of feeling and reason. It would seem that, in the extreme spiritual vicissitudes of his life, conscious alternately of personal weakness and of the largest speculative grasp, he at times threw himself entirely on the consolations of evangelical faith, and at others reconstructed the cosmos for himself in terms of Neo-Platonism and the philosophy of Schelling. So great were his variations even in his latter years, that he could speak to his friend Allsop in a highly latitudinarian sense, declaring that in Christianity “the miracles are supererogatory,” and that “the law of God and the great principles of the Christian religion would have been the same had Christ never assumed humanity.”
From Schelling, whom he praised as having developed Kant where Fichte failed to do so, he borrowed much and often, not only in the metaphysical sections of the Biographia but in his aesthetic lectures, and further in the cosmic speculations of the posthumous Theory of Life. On the first score he makes but an equivocal acknowledgment, claiming to have thought on Schelling’s lines before reading him; but it has been shown by Hamilton and Ferrier that besides transcribing much from Schelling without avowal he silently appropriated the learning of Maass on philosophical history. In other directions he laid under tribute Herder and Lessing; yet all the while he cast severe imputations of plagiarism upon Hume and others. His own plagiarisms were doubtless facilitated by the physiological effects of opium.
Inasmuch as he finally followed in philosophy the mainly poetical or theosophic movement of Schelling, which satisfied neither the logical needs appealed to by Hegel nor the new demand for naturalistic induction, Coleridge, after arousing a great amount of philosophic interest in his own country in the second quarter of the century, has ceased to “make a school.” Thus his significance in intellectual history remains that of a great stimulator. He undoubtedly did much to deepen and liberalize Christian thought in England, his influence being specially marked in the school of F. D. Maurice, and in the lives of men like John Sterling. And even his many borrowings from the German were assimilated with a rare power of development,