The World’s Progress

from The World’s Progress, Vol. VIII, the Delphian Society, 1913:

Eminent above most as poet, literary expounder, philosopher, and conversor, Coleridge is greatest as an influence. It welled from everything he produced, and how potent and widespread that influence has been can only be understood after a thoughtful survey of the higher literature and oral teaching since his day. Born in 1772, he was a schoolmate of Charles Lamb in the Charterhouse, thence he went to Cambridge, to study everything, from the political pamphlets of Burke to the Greek classics. His adoption of Unitarian doctrine and sundry pecuniary worries led to college troubles which he solved by suddenly enlisting in the army. Bought out by some friends, he returned to the university, but left without graduating in 1794. Then it was that his friend Southey espoused his fantastic “pantisocracy” scheme, which was to found an earthly paradise on the banks of the Susquehanna, which was selected in blank ignorance of everything except the melodious charm of its name. When in a few months the fairy bubble burst, the pair of poet-souls married sisters, Southey keeping it secret until he returned from foreign travel, Coleridge settling down to domestic life near Bristol. He lectured, with scant success, published “Addresses to the People,” on political topics, strongly radical in sentiment, and had hard work to earn a living. A chance meeting with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy proved the beginning of a life-long friendship. Together they issued the famous volume of “Lyrical Ballads,” 1798, from which their own fame dates. Coleridge’s sole, but sufficient contribution to this book was “The Ancient Mariner.”

Coleridge had meantime become a Unitarian preacher, unappreciated by congregations, had issued “Juvenile Poems,” and started a paper, The Watchman, which died in two months. The success of the “Ballads” and the annuity conferred on him by admiring friends enabled him to spend a year in Germany. On his return he published his translation of Schiller’s “Wallenstein” and took up his abode in the house of Southey. His revolutionary sentiments were exchanged for ardent loyalty, and his Unitarianism for orthodox faith. twenty-seven numbers of his new periodical, The Friend, were brought out at this time, and his lectures on Shakespeare and other subjects made a deep impression.

But Coleridge had succumbed to the charm of opium, and its terrible traces are seen in the “Ode to Dejection” and other poems and essays. Physically its influence was deplorable. Painful domestic troubles and alienations of friendship followed the rest of his life. Southey generously housed his family, from whom he was finally estranged. From 1816, till his death in 1834, he lived as the guest of Dr. Gillman at Highgate, London, where he was the high priest, if not the divinity, of a devoted band who gathered to hear his marvellous conversation. It was monologue rather than talk, as the anecdote indicates. Coleridge asked Lamb, “Have you ever heard me preach?” “I have never heard you do anything else!” was Lamb’s reply. In his later years, Coleridge issued his best prose book, the “Aids to Reflection,” with other philosophical writings of exceptional worth. In his lectures on Shakespeare he brought the full force and depth of the poet’s genius before the public mind as no other English commentator had done. In short, Coleridge had become a mighty influence upon the most thoughtful of his countrymen.

As a critic of poetry he holds the sceptre by common consent, having fixed canons of appreciation which were not recognized until he codified them. His own work rises in its best examples to the criterion he established. Imagination soars to lofty heights as melodiously as the song flight of the lark “from sullen earth arising” to “sing hymns at heaven’s gate.“ Swinburne, gifted with rare powers of expression, unqualifiedly pronounces “The Ancient Mariner” “the most wonderful of all poems,” as Wordsworth, and others in after years, declared Coleridge to be “the most wonderful man,” in respect of thoughts conveyed in magical speech, they had ever met. The strange wild melody and uncanny fascination of this peom place it on a pedestal all its own in literature. “Christabel” is another incomparable monument of genius and art, meaningless but enthralling, only an incomplete beginning, yet sublimer for all that it leaves in the vague. The “Ode to France,” an apostrophe to liberty, and “Ode to the New Year,” rank with the better known odes of Dryden, Collins, and Gray. The unevenness of Coleridge’s work and his small poetic output are explained by his long struggle with poverty, and a still sadder malady. Yet, mystic philosopher, though he was, he has contributed to lyric verse one of the purest love songs in the language, “Genevieve.”

I’ve received word from a fan that the above article mistakenly says he attended Charterhouse when Coleridge was educated at Christ's Hospital in London.