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Studies in letters and life/Sir George Beaumont, Coleridge, and Wordsworth

< Studies in letters and life

SIR GEORGE BEAUMONT, COLERIDGE, AND WORDSWORTH.

Sir George Beaumont appears to have been one of the most agreeable of men. He had not merely high breeding, but humanity of disposition, delightful companionableness, and the refinement that springs from artistic pursuits. Haydon accuses his manners of a want of moral courage. "What his taste dictated to be right, he would shrink from asserting if it shocked the prejudices of others or put himself to a moment's inconvenience," was the fault that this critic had in mind; but this is only to class him with the men who do not think that the truth is always to be spoken in society, and prefer tact to an aggressive egotism. Sir Humphry Davy notices especially that he was a "remarkably sensible man, which I mention because it is somewhat remarkable in a painter of genius who is at the same time a man of rank and an exceedingly amusing companion." Southey was struck by the apparent happiness of his life, and the absence of any reference to afflictions or anxieties that he might have experienced, and says that he "had as little liking for country sports as for public business of any kind," being absorbed by art and nature; and, to add Scott's kind words of him in his diary, that excellent judge writes, "Sir George Beaumont's dead; by far the most sensible and pleasing man I ever knew. Kind, too, in his nature, and generous,—gentle in society, and of those mild manners which tend to soften the causticity of the general London tone of persiflage and personal satire. I am very sorry—as much as it is in my nature to be—for one whom I could see but seldom." This is a concert of praise which it is a pleasure to associate with the name of the man who was, chiefly, the founder of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

He was a friend of the artists of his time, and a patron of Wilkie and Haydon when they needed aid. In the latter's autobiography there is a bright account of a fortnight's visit paid by these two to Coleorton, Sir George's country-seat, which brings the interior life there vividly to the eye, though it borrows something from the unconscious humor of the narrator, who always fills the scene with himself in the leading part. One pauses to note a characteristic sentence of the incorrigible beggar in which he breaks out with the indignant remark, "All my friends were always advising me what to do instead of advising the Government what to do for me." Sir George, however, had other friends, and most noteworthy of all, Wordsworth, of whom he first heard from Coleridge. Before meeting him, understanding that the two friends wished to live in the same neighborhood, he bought and presented to Wordsworth the little property of Applethwaite near Greta Hall, Coleridge's abode. Wordsworth never used the ground for the purpose for which it was given, but it remained in his possession. From this time, 1803, a close friendship grew up between his family at Grasmere and the one at Coleorton, grounded upon common interests and cemented with mutual exchanges of kindness and regard, so that it survived until the death of Sir George and Lady Beaumont, herself an excellent woman, of whom Crabb Robinson wrote, "She is a gentlewoman of great sweetness and dignity, I should think among the most interesting persons in the country."

Of the two poets Coleridge was at first more intimate with the Beaumonts. This was in 1803, the period of his illness, just previous to the voyage to Malta. The letters he wrote are very painful to read. The subject is usually the ego; and in reading the apologies of the writer for treating of this ever-present theme, and his observations on his own lack of vanity and the danger he is in of undervaluing his powers and works, one can scarcely fail to be struck by the identity in many respects of the egotism of the overweening and of the self-depreciating kinds. The aspects are different, but the weakness has the same root. In Coleridge it was, perhaps, no more than a question of the state of his stomach whether his assiduous interest in himself should result in intellectual pride or in self-abasement; but without giving too severe a touch, it is clear enough that his eye, when fixed on himself, was on the wrong object.

The letters to the Beaumonts are characterized by this complaining and absorbing egotism of the invalid, unfortified by patience, resolution, or even self-respect. The ravages of disease in its physical aspects, the laying bare of bodily conditions and symptoms of decay, would be in themselves intolerably disagreeable, but it is much worse to be obliged to attend at the sick-bed of the mind; and in Coleridge's case the internal weakness of the spirit excites the greatest pity, and this feeling nearly passes involuntarily into disgust. The sensibility of his nervous organization was acute. He speaks of times when, as he was accusing himself of insensibility through incapacity to feel, his "whole frame has gone crash, as it were." Under the excitement of his emotions, he dissolves in weakness; the spectacle is not a pleasant one; there is something almost ignoble in such loss of self-control. When Wordsworth recited to him, if one can fancy such a thing, the entire thirteen books on the growth of his own mind, in 1807, Coleridge composed a poem, not very coherent or noble, though with personal pathos, in which he says that when he rose from his seat, he "found himself in prayer." It was apparently not an unusual termination to the access of emotion, and it occurred more than once in his relations with the Beaumonts. The mention of it, however, in his correspondence with them, offends one, not in itself, but by the manner of it; indeed, the manner of his earlier letters is indescribable. Their sentiment is so tremulous and overwrought with fever that they resemble maundering; they are "sicklied o'er" with mental disease, and belong to the pathology of genius.

One long epistle, in which he devotes himself to an analysis of his mental condition at the time when he was what is now known as a Social Democrat, shows by an eminent example in what ways the minds of young men of enthusiasm, who have caught the contagion of new ideas, commonly act, and how their tongues are kept going. Coleridge and Southey were rampant young radicals for about ten months, and might many times have been justly thrown into jail for the use of unlawful language and seditiously fomenting the passions of the people. Coleridge ascribes the beginning of his ramblings from the true path of respectable politics partly to his intellectual isolation among his relatives and virtuous acquaintances generally, who thought that his "opinions were the drivel of a babe, but the guilt attached to them,—this was the gray hair and rigid muscle of inveterate depravity;" and partly, he declares, it was due to the thirst for kindness planted in himself, in that "me, who," he says, "from my childhood have had no avarice, no ambition, whose very vanity in my vainest moments was nine tenths of it the desire and delight and necessity of loving and of being beloved,"—needs which he found satisfied in the welcome and company of "the Democrats." So he fell among evil companions. On becoming an agitator upon the platform he succumbed to the temptations of the fluent speaker, gifted "with an ebullient fancy, a flowing utterance, a light and dancing heart, and a disposition to catch time by the very rapidity of my own motion, and to speak vehemently from mere verbal associations; choosing sentences and sentiments for the very reason which would have made me recoil with a dying away of the heart and unutterable horror from the actions expressed in such sentiments and sentences, namely, because they were wild and original, and vehement and fantastic." Here is a choice specimen of his eloquence, on the occasion of a supper by some Lord, to commemorate an Austrian victory: "This is a true Lord's Supper in the communion of darkness! This is a Eucharist of Hell! a sacrament of misery! over each morsel and each drop of which the spirit of some murdered innocent cries aloud to God, This is my body! and this is my blood!" There is one sin against society, however, which he declined to commit, and he took great credit to himself for his obstinate refusal. He joined no party, club, or any of the radical societies, which he characterizes as "ascarides in the bowels of the state, subsisting on the weakness and diseasedness, and having for their final object the death of that state, whose life had been their birth and growth, and continued to be their sole nourishment." He remained outside of these entangling alliances, a free-lance speechifier, in the condition of mind of the willing martyr: "The very clank of the chains that were to be put about my limbs would not at that time have deterred me from a strong phrase or striking metaphor, although I had had no other inducement to the use of the same except the wantonness of luxuriant imgination, and my aversion to abstain from anything simply because it was dangerous." Such was Coleridge at twenty-four years,—the age at which Emmett was executed; whose death called out this long letter of reminiscences concerning his own career as an agitator, and of reflections upon the impulses and justification of revolutionary orators, their tempations, errors, and illusions. He understood the fate of Emmett with greater clearness because of this little episode in his own life, and it is noticeable that he has the grace not to think that the young patriot's career bore too much resemblance to his own; but this confession of his foolishness in general, spread out somewhat magniloquently before the eyes of his aristocratic correspondent, is a lesson in human nature well worth a moment's attention from conservative and orderly people.

Coleridge's career—if a brief digression may be pardoned here—was only too much in keeping with the temperament of these letters to the Beaumonts. Wherever one comes upon it in the memoirs of the time, the story is the same. Soften it as we may, that career was one of those, too frequent among men of letters, that can never be told, so marred by disease and by moral feebleness, so full of shame and supineness and waste, that it must be kept out of sight. During the years of his maturity he was a broken man, and knew himself to be such; from the time that, in becoming the victim of opium, he lost what little will-power was originally his, he felt that the spirit of imagination had left his house of life, and in its place was henceforward

"Sense of past youth, and manhood come in vain,
And genius given, and knowledge won in vain;"

and in this mood of pervading despondency he seems always in fancy to be haunting the grave of his dead self. This consciousness of his loss, though it had more of the stupor of despair than of the sharpness of penitence, lends some impressiveness to his story; but this pain was not searching enough to save him for himself, nor of a kind to make men oblivious of those violent contrasts in his life which offend our sense of rightness. It is a morally confusing spectacle to see genius professing the highest knowledge of the secret things of God, but itself wrecked; and it requires something more than the poet's sorrow at the withering of his wreath to reconcile such an antithesis.

Then, too, although Coleridge's poetic imagination undoubtedly was quenched at once, or gave out only brief and random flashes in his manhood, it may well be questioned whether the waste of his faculties was not due quite as much to mismanagement of the mind as to the palsying of his powers of effort, purpose, or orderly reduction of thought. He lived in the period of universal philosophers, and in his study of metaphysics and theology in Germany he must have fixed in his mind the habit of including the omne scibile in his system. This was the more easy for him, as he had in unusual proportion that false comprehensiveness which seizes on knowledge, not by all its relations as it stands in the body of science, but by some particular relation which it may seem to bear, truly or untruly, to some preconceived idea that has been taken as the organizing principle of the new scheme. It is because of their common participation in this method that poetry and philosophy, in the old sense, approach so much nearer each other than either does to science. It is plain to any one who reads the topics of Coleridge's discourses that his mind ranged through a vast circuit of knowledge habitually, but also that it touched the facts only at single points and superficially; in other words, he displays compass rather than grasp. In dealing with the mass of his learning, he showed no lack of systematizing power, though it may easily be believed that in conversation with chance visitors the fine filaments of logical connection escaped their sight. The trouble was in the original mode of elaborating the system—the old Greek way of philosophizing by subtle manipulation of analogies, convenient facts, half-understood harmonies of this with that, arbitrary constructions, with now and then a dead plunge into the unfathomable. To borrow Coleridge's own distinction, this procedure is to logic what fancy is to the imagination—a freak of the mind partly out of relation to the truth of things. It is the modern form of scholasticism.

Coleridge, however, whose speculative powers were thus employed, is believed to have been a great light to those who had eyes to see. What particular truth Maurice and others derived from him is, nevertheless, not evident. He shared the awakening power that idealists possess, generally in proportion to their consistency and the intensity of their personal conviction. Idealism, by the very fact that it is an enfranchisement from sense, is a tonic to the mind; it quickens the activity of thought and facilitates its processes because it assumes the mastery of the universe, and makes reality pliable to its hand. This may or may not be lawful, but it generates a feeling of command and of liberty highly favorable to spiritual development. To some men impressionable on that side of their nature Coleridge was the giver of this freedom, and this has been the case especially with members of the clergy who are closely attached to theological dogma. Such persons found in Coleridge's mind the rare and curious coexistence of fixed dogma with incessant speculation: he afforded the sense of untrammeled investigation without once disturbing the certainty of the pre-judged cause. This phantom of liberalism was a very quieting tutelar genius to some educated men, who thus kept up a semblance of thinking ; but influence of this sort is necessarily transitory. His Scriptural renderings of philosophy give place to those of other theologians, who rationalize on new grounds of scientific knowledge instead of German metaphysics, while the stimulation that was furnished by his idealism may be more simply and directly derived from less involved and abstruse thinkers. His theology and metaphysics, in pursuit of which he wasted his powers, are already seen to be transient. On the other hand, his criticism has articulated the works of minor authors who have themselves written in a formal style, nor has its influence been harmed by its frequent over-refinement and fancifulness; and his poetry has remained untouched by time. It belongs to the period of his early enthusiasm, before he had become too dulled for the breath of inspiration to kindle him; and fortunately one can read nearly all the best of it without a thought of the dreary after-life of the poet, which has no vital interest to any one except as an illustration of prolonged failure due to many causes, but not less to a lack of mental than of moral self-government. He infiltrated a peculiar intellectual life into the clergy of his time, but in them it came to nothing more tangible and permanent than in himself. Will it be long before Carlyle's picture of the Seer at Highgate will be the only supplement to The Ancient Mariner, so far as the general knowledge of Coleridge is concerned, and all between nothing but the weariness of the opium-eater's hiding?

Perhaps the serenity of Wordsworth's home at Grasmere gains by the miserable contrast. Thither Coleridge came for invigoration; thither, when he finally separated from his wife, he brought or sent the children; and when he could not or would not retire to the hospitality and pleasant companionship of the household where he found the feminine sympathy which he had failed of in his own marriage, Wordsworth would set out to visit him with moral support and cheer. A different interest united Wordsworth and Sir George Beaumont; it was the love of nature. Landscape was the subject of their thoughts. Sir George painted it, Wordsworth poetized it; in the life of both it was a permanent resource to which they constantly resorted, and they liked to blend their work in this solvent—the pictures of the one becoming a text for the poems of the other, and vice versa. The interest Wordsworth felt in landscape gardening, in modifying wild nature, and his ideas regarding the methods and aims of the art, are brought out by the part he had in planning the grounds at Coleorton. Sir George rebuilt these, and, in laying out the winter garden in particular, he had frequent recourse to the taste of his friend; and as Wordsworth was that year occupying the old farmhouse on the estate, the business of thinking out and overseeing this work was at once diversion and restful employment amid his poetic labors. He wrote at great length on the subject to Lady Beaumont, and laid before her an elaborate plain full of ivy, holly, juniper, yews, open sunshine glades, flower-borders, an alley, a bower, a spray-fountain, a quarry, a distant spire, a pool with two gold-fish, a vine-clad old cottage, and other things which are artificial enough in the reading, but in reality seem remarkably well fitted to mingle the charm of cultivation with the wildness of the evergreens, and make a sheltering retreat where the life of nature would linger longest in autumn and revive earliest in the warm sun.

"Painters and poets," he wrote, "have had the credit of being reckoned the fathers of English gardening," and he felt thus in the line of succession in the art. It is most interesting to observe how he obtains suggestions from the poets, and makes their Pegasus plough his field. He was, of course, opposed to undue interference with nature and the deformity it occasions, and also to the ostentation of the wealth or station of the owner. "It is a substitution of little things for great when we would put a whole country into a nobleman's livery," he says with spirit, and, declaring that the laying out of grounds is a liberal art not unlike poetry and painting, he goes on to protest against the monopoly of nature by the great ones of the earth, upon high æsthetic grounds. "No liberal art," he says, "aims merely at the gratification of an individual or a class; the painter or poet is degraded in proportion as he does so.... If this be so when we are merely putting together words or colors, how much more ought the feeling to prevail when we are in the midst of the realities of things.... What, then, shall we say of many great mansions with their unqualified expulsion of human creatures from their neighborhood, happy or not—houses which do what is fabled of the upas tree—that they breathe out death and desolation?" These strictures on the aristocratic handling of land he continues for some pages in an interesting advocacy of æsthetic communism—still a suggestive topic. This sense of the beauty and grandeur of nature as a universal boon, the desire to humanize the landscape without robbing it of its own essential character or of the minor charms of its native wildness, and a great delight in his own practical work of improving rubbish heaps, old walls, and broken ground into a winter retreat of sunshine and evergreens and red-berried vines, with nooks and views fit for a poet's walk, are the qualities that still give interest to those half dozen letters about planting a waste acre of land. On the other hand, his genius, in which susceptibility to nature was so dominating a principle, seldom finds expression in the prose of his letters with nearly the same clearness and purity as in his poems. There is one extract, however, which must be given, of a city scene from the country poet:—

"I left Coleridge at seven o'clock on Sunday morning and walked towards the city in a very thoughtful and melancholy state of mind. I had passed through Temple Bar and by St. Dunstan's, noticing nothing, and entirely occupied with my own thoughts, when, looking up, I saw before me the avenue of Fleet Street, silent, empty, and pure white, with a sprinkling of new-fallen snow, not a cart or a carriage to obstruct the view, no noise, only a few soundless and dusky foot-passengers here and there. You remember the elegant line of the curve of Ludgate Hill in which the avenue would terminate, and beyond, and towering above it, was the huge and majestic form of St. Paul's, solemnized by a thin veil of falling snow. I cannot say how much I was affected at this unthought-of sight in such a place, and what a blessing I felt there is in habits of exalted imagination. My sorrow was controlled, and my uneasiness of mind—not quieted and relieved altogether—seemed at once to receive the gift of an anchor of security."

This is not poetry, but it is from the same pen as the sonnet on Westminster Bridge.

Besides this taste for landscape, a special interest was taken by both friends in what poetry Wordsworth was composing from time to time. Wordsworth again expatiates on the "awful truth that there neither is, nor can be, any genuine enjoyment of poetry among nineteen out of twenty of those persons who live, or wish to live, in the broad light of the world," that is, in society; and again defines his aims, "to console the afflicted; to add sunshine to daylight, by making the happy happier; to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think, and feel, and therefore become, more actively and securely virtuous," etc. Here, too, are the calm and patient confidence in his own immortality, a serene foreknowledge of how the matter would end, though there are some dark spots in his pre-vision, as when he says that "the people would love Peter Bell" if only the critics would let them. It appears, too, that these poets were discreet in their confidential criticism of each other, and by no means blind to faults. Wordsworth notices that in Southey's verse, notwithstanding picturesqueness and romance and a minor touch or two, "there is nothing that shows the hand of the great master;" and Coleridge, with all his adoration for Wordsworth, even when declaring that he regarded the tale of the ruined cottage in the Excursion as "the finest poem in our language, comparing it with any of the same or similar length," could yet put his finger on the very centre of weakness in Wordsworth. "I have sometimes fancied," he says, "that, having by the conjoint operation of his own experiences, feelings, and reason himself convinced himself of truths which the generality of people have either taken for granted from their infancy, or at least adopted in early life, he has attached all their own depth and weight to doctrines and words which come almost as truisms or commonplace to others."

Wordsworth's last words are a farewell; they illustrate how the love of nature and enjoyment of it, unlike most of youthful emotions, gain an increasing glow with years, and they express his faith and life in the most elementary terms: "I never had a higher relish for the beauties of nature than during this spring, nor enjoyed myself more. What manifold reason, my dear George, have you and I had to be thankful to Providence! Theologians may puzzle their heads about dogmas as they will; the religion of gratitude cannot mislead us. Of that we are sure, and gratitude is the handmaid to hope, and hope the harbinger of faith. I look abroad upon nature, I think of the best part of our species, I lean upon my friends, and I meditate upon the Scriptures, especially the Gospel of St. John; and my creed rises up of itself with the ease of an exhalation, yet a fabric of adamant. God bless you, my ever dear friend."