Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 8


Coleridge sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, in those years, looking
down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the
inanity of life's battle; attracting towards him the thoughts of
innumerable brave souls still engaged there. His express
contributions to poetry, philosophy, or any specific province of human
literature or enlightenment, had been small and sadly intermittent;
but he had, especially among young inquiring men, a higher than
literary, a kind of prophetic or magician character. He was thought
to hold, he alone in England, the key of German and other
Transcendentalisms; knew the sublime secret of believing by "the
reason" what "the understanding" had been obliged to fling out as
incredible; and could still, after Hume and Voltaire had done their
best and worst with him, profess himself an orthodox Christian, and
say and print to the Church of England, with its singular old rubrics
and surplices at Allhallowtide, _Esto perpetua_. A sublime man; who,
alone in those dark days, had saved his crown of spiritual manhood;
escaping from the black materialisms, and revolutionary deluges, with
"God, Freedom, Immortality" still his: a king of men. The practical
intellects of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned
him a metaphysical dreamer: but to the rising spirits of the young
generation he had this dusky sublime character; and sat there as a
kind of _Magus_, girt in mystery and enigma; his Dodona oak-grove (Mr.
Gilman's house at Highgate) whispering strange things, uncertain
whether oracles or jargon.

The Gilmans did not encourage much company, or excitation of any sort,
round their sage; nevertheless access to him, if a youth did
reverently wish it, was not difficult. He would stroll about the
pleasant garden with you, sit in the pleasant rooms of the
place,--perhaps take you to his own peculiar room, high up, with a
rearward view, which was the chief view of all. A really charming
outlook, in fine weather. Close at hand, wide sweep of flowery leafy
gardens, their few houses mostly hidden, the very chimney-pots veiled
under blossomy umbrage, flowed gloriously down hill; gloriously
issuing in wide-tufted undulating plain-country, rich in all charms of
field and town. Waving blooming country of the brightest green;
dotted all over with handsome villas, handsome groves; crossed by
roads and human traffic, here inaudible or heard only as a musical
hum: and behind all swam, under olive-tinted haze, the illimitable
limitary ocean of London, with its domes and steeples definite in the
sun, big Paul's and the many memories attached to it hanging high over
all. Nowhere, of its kind, could you see a grander prospect on a
bright summer day, with the set of the air going
southward,--southward, and so draping with the city-smoke not you but
the city. Here for hours would Coleridge talk, concerning all
conceivable or inconceivable things; and liked nothing better than to
have an intelligent, or failing that, even a silent and patient human
listener. He distinguished himself to all that ever heard him as at
least the most surprising talker extant in this world,--and to some
small minority, by no means to all, as the most excellent.

The good man, he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps; and gave
you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings; a life
heavy-laden, half-vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of
manifold physical and other bewilderment. Brow and head were round,
and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The
deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration;
confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild
astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise,
might be called flabby and irresolute; expressive of weakness under
possibility of strength. He hung loosely on his limbs, with knees
bent, and stooping attitude; in walking, he rather shuffled than
decisively steps; and a lady once remarked, he never could fix which
side of the garden walk would suit him best, but continually shifted,
in corkscrew fashion, and kept trying both. A heavy-laden,
high-aspiring and surely much-suffering man. His voice, naturally
soft and good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and
singsong; he spoke as if preaching,--you would have said, preaching
earnestly and also hopelessly the weightiest things. I still
recollect his "object" and "subject," terms of continual recurrence in
the Kantean province; and how he sang and snuffled them into
"om-m-mject" and "sum-m-mject," with a kind of solemn shake or quaver,
as he rolled along. No talk, in his century or in any other, could be
more surprising.

Sterling, who assiduously attended him, with profound reverence, and
was often with him by himself, for a good many months, gives a record
of their first colloquy.[8] Their colloquies were numerous, and he
had taken note of many; but they are all gone to the fire, except this
first, which Mr. Hare has printed,--unluckily without date. It
contains a number of ingenious, true and half-true observations, and
is of course a faithful epitome of the things said; but it gives small
idea of Coleridge's way of talking;--this one feature is perhaps the
most recognizable, "Our interview lasted for three hours, during which
he talked two hours and three quarters." Nothing could be more
copious than his talk; and furthermore it was always, virtually or
literally, of the nature of a monologue; suffering no interruption,
however reverent; hastily putting aside all foreign additions,
annotations, or most ingenuous desires for elucidation, as well-meant
superfluities which would never do. Besides, it was talk not flowing
any-whither like a river, but spreading every-whither in inextricable
currents and regurgitations like a lake or sea; terribly deficient in
definite goal or aim, nay often in logical intelligibility; _what_ you
were to believe or do, on any earthly or heavenly thing, obstinately
refusing to appear from it. So that, most times, you felt logically
lost; swamped near to drowning in this tide of ingenious vocables,
spreading out boundless as if to submerge the world.

To sit as a passive bucket and be pumped into, whether you consent or
not, can in the long-run be exhilarating to no creature; how eloquent
soever the flood of utterance that is descending. But if it be withal
a confused unintelligible flood of utterance, threatening to submerge
all known landmarks of thought, and drown the world and you!--I have
heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours,
his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatsoever to
any individual of his hearers,--certain of whom, I for one, still kept
eagerly listening in hope; the most had long before given up, and
formed (if the room were large enough) secondary humming groups of
their own. He began anywhere: you put some question to him, made
some suggestive observation: instead of answering this, or decidedly
setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable
apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and
other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out; perhaps
did at last get under way,--but was swiftly solicited, turned aside by
the glance of some radiant new game on this hand or that, into new
courses; and ever into new; and before long into all the Universe,
where it was uncertain what game you would catch, or whether any.

His talk, alas, was distinguished, like himself, by irresolution: it
disliked to he troubled with conditions, abstinences, definite
fulfilments;--loved to wander at its own sweet will, and make its
auditor and his claims and humble wishes a mere passive bucket for
itself! He had knowledge about many things and topics, much curious
reading; but generally all topics led him, after a pass or two, into
the high seas of theosophic philosophy, the hazy infinitude of Kantean
transcendentalism, with its "sum-m-mjects " and " om-m-mjects." Sad
enough; for with such indolent impatience of the claims and ignorances
of others, he had not the least talent for explaining this or anything
unknown to them; and you swam and fluttered in the mistiest wide
unintelligible deluge of things, for most part in a rather profitless
uncomfortable manner.

Glorious islets, too, I have seen rise out of the haze; but they were
few, and soon swallowed in the general element again. Balmy sunny
islets, islets of the blest and the intelligible:--on which occasions
those secondary humming groups would all cease humming, and hang
breathless upon the eloquent words; till once your islet got wrapt in
the mist again, and they could recommence humming. Eloquent
artistically expressive words you always had; piercing radiances of a
most subtle insight came at intervals; tones of noble pious sympathy,
recognizable as pious though strangely colored, were never wanting
long: but in general you could not call this aimless, cloud-capt,
cloud-based, lawlessly meandering human discourse of reason by the
name of "excellent talk," but only of "surprising;" and were reminded
bitterly of Hazlitt's account of it: "Excellent talker, very,--if you
let him start from no premises and come to no conclusion." Coleridge
was not without what talkers call wit, and there were touches of
prickly sarcasm in him, contemptuous enough of the world and its idols
and popular dignitaries; he had traits even of poetic humor: but in
general he seemed deficient in laughter; or indeed in sympathy for
concrete human things either on the sunny or on the stormy side. One
right peal of concrete laughter at some convicted flesh-and-blood
absurdity, one burst of noble indignation at some injustice or
depravity, rubbing elbows with us on this solid Earth, how strange
would it have been in that Kantean haze-world, and how infinitely
cheering amid its vacant air-castles and dim-melting ghosts and
shadows! None such ever came. His life had been an abstract thinking
and dreaming, idealistic, passed amid the ghosts of defunct bodies and
of unborn ones. The moaning singsong of that theosophico-metaphysical
monotony left on you, at last, a very dreary feeling.

In close colloquy, flowing within narrower banks, I suppose he was
more definite and apprehensible; Sterling in after-times did not
complain of his unintelligibility, or imputed it only to the abtruse
high nature of the topics handled. Let us hope so, let us try to
believe so! There is no doubt but Coleridge could speak plain words
on things plain: his observations and responses on the trivial
matters that occurred were as simple as the commonest man's, or were
even distinguished by superior simplicity as well as pertinency. "Ah,
your tea is too cold, Mr. Coleridge!" mourned the good Mrs. Gilman
once, in her kind, reverential and yet protective manner, handing him
a very tolerable though belated cup.--"It's better than I deserve!"
snuffled he, in a low hoarse murmur, partly courteous, chiefly pious,
the tone of which still abides with me: "It's better than I deserve!"

But indeed, to the young ardent mind, instinct with pious nobleness,
yet driven to the grim deserts of Radicalism for a faith, his
speculations had a charm much more than literary, a charm almost
religious and prophetic. The constant gist of his discourse was
lamentation over the sunk condition of the world; which he recognized
to be given up to Atheism and Materialism, full of mere sordid
misbeliefs, mispursuits and misresults. All Science had become
mechanical; the science not of men, but of a kind of human beavers.
Churches themselves had died away into a godless mechanical condition;
and stood there as mere Cases of Articles, mere Forms of Churches;
like the dried carcasses of once swift camels, which you find left
withering in the thirst of the universal desert,--ghastly portents for
the present, beneficent ships of the desert no more. Men's souls were
blinded, hebetated; and sunk under the influence of Atheism and
Materialism, and Hume and Voltaire: the world for the present was as
an extinct world, deserted of God, and incapable of well-doing till it
changed its heart and spirit. This, expressed I think with less of
indignation and with more of long-drawn querulousness, was always
recognizable as the ground-tone:--in which truly a pious young heart,
driven into Radicalism and the opposition party, could not but
recognize a too sorrowful truth; and ask of the Oracle, with all
earnestness, What remedy, then?

The remedy, though Coleridge himself professed to see it as in
sunbeams, could not, except by processes unspeakably difficult, be
described to you at all. On the whole, those dead Churches, this dead
English Church especially, must be brought to life again. Why not?
It was not dead; the soul of it, in this parched-up body, was
tragically asleep only. Atheistic Philosophy was true on its side,
and Hume and Voltaire could on their own ground speak irrefragably for
themselves against any Church: but lift the Church and them into a
higher sphere. Of argument, _they_ died into inanition, the Church
revivified itself into pristine florid vigor,--became once more a
living ship of the desert, and invincibly bore you over stock and
stone. But how, but how! By attending to the "reason" of man, said
Coleridge, and duly chaining up the "understanding" of man: the
_Vernunft_ (Reason) and _Verstand_ (Understanding) of the Germans, it
all turned upon these, if you could well understand them,--which you
couldn't. For the rest, Mr. Coleridge had on the anvil various Books,
especially was about to write one grand Book _On the Logos_, which
would help to bridge the chasm for us. So much appeared, however:
Churches, though proved false (as you had imagined), were still true
(as you were to imagine): here was an Artist who could burn you up an
old Church, root and branch; and then as the Alchemists professed to
do with organic substances in general, distil you an "Astral Spirit"
from the ashes, which was the very image of the old burnt article, its
air-drawn counterpart,--this you still had, or might get, and draw
uses from, if you could. Wait till the Book on the Logos were
done;--alas, till your own terrene eyes, blind with conceit and the
dust of logic, were purged, subtilized and spiritualized into the
sharpness of vision requisite for discerning such an
"om-m-mject."--The ingenuous young English head, of those days, stood
strangely puzzled by such revelations; uncertain whether it were
getting inspired, or getting infatuated into flat imbecility; and
strange effulgence, of new day or else of deeper meteoric night,
colored the horizon of the future for it.

Let me not be unjust to this memorable man. Surely there was here, in
his pious, ever-laboring, subtle mind, a precious truth, or
prefigurement of truth; and yet a fatal delusion withal.
Prefigurement that, in spite of beaver sciences and temporary
spiritual hebetude and cecity, man and his Universe were eternally
divine; and that no past nobleness, or revelation of the divine, could
or would ever be lost to him. Most true, surely, and worthy of all
acceptance. Good also to do what you can with old Churches and
practical Symbols of the Noble: nay quit not the burnt ruins of them
while you find there is still gold to be dug there. But, on the
whole, do not think you can, by logical alchemy, distil astral spirits
from them; or if you could, that said astral spirits, or defunct
logical phantasms, could serve you in anything. What the light of
your mind, which is the direct inspiration of the Almighty, pronounces
incredible,--that, in God's name, leave uncredited; at your peril do
not try believing that. No subtlest hocus-pocus of "reason" versus
"understanding" will avail for that feat;--and it is terribly perilous
to try it in these provinces!

The truth is, I now see, Coleridge's talk and speculation was the
emblem of himself: in it as in him, a ray of heavenly inspiration
struggled, in a tragically ineffectual degree, with the weakness of
flesh and blood. He says once, he "had skirted the howling deserts of
Infidelity;" this was evident enough: but he had not had the courage,
in defiance of pain and terror, to press resolutely across said
deserts to the new firm lands of Faith beyond; he preferred to create
logical fata-morganas for himself on this hither side, and laboriously
solace himself with these.

To the man himself Nature had given, in high measure, the seeds of a
noble endowment; and to unfold it had been forbidden him. A subtle
lynx-eyed intellect, tremulous pious sensibility to all good and all
beautiful; truly a ray of empyrean light;--but embedded in such weak
laxity of character, in such indolences and esuriences as had made
strange work with it. Once more, the tragic story of a high endowment
with an insufficient will. An eye to discern the divineness of the
Heaven's spendors and lightnings, the insatiable wish to revel in
their godlike radiances and brilliances; but no heart to front the
scathing terrors of them, which is the first condition of your
conquering an abiding place there. The courage necessary for him,
above all things, had been denied this man. His life, with such ray
of the empyrean in it, was great and terrible to him; and he had not
valiantly grappled with it, he had fled from it; sought refuge in
vague daydreams, hollow compromises, in opium, in theosophic
metaphysics. Harsh pain, danger, necessity, slavish harnessed toil,
were of all things abhorrent to him. And so the empyrean element,
lying smothered under the terrene, and yet inextinguishable there,
made sad writhings. For pain, danger, difficulty, steady slaving
toil, and other highly disagreeable behests of destiny, shall in
nowise be shirked by any brightest mortal that will approve himself
loyal to his mission in this world; nay precisely the higher he is,
the deeper will be the disagreeableness, and the detestability to
flesh and blood, of the tasks laid on him; and the heavier too, and
more tragic, his penalties if he neglect them.

For the old Eternal Powers do live forever; nor do their laws know any
change, however we in our poor wigs and church-tippets may attempt to
read their laws. To _steal_ into Heaven,--by the modern method, of
sticking ostrich-like your head into fallacies on Earth, equally as by
the ancient and by all conceivable methods,--is forever forbidden.
High-treason is the name of that attempt; and it continues to be
punished as such. Strange enough: here once more was a kind of
Heaven-scaling Ixion; and to him, as to the old one, the just gods
were very stern! The ever-revolving, never-advancing Wheel (of a
kind) was his, through life; and from his Cloud-Juno did not he too
procreate strange Centaurs, spectral Puseyisms, monstrous illusory
Hybrids, and ecclesiastical Chimeras,--which now roam the earth in a
very lamentable manner!

Thomas Carlyle

Sorry, no summary available yet.