« AnteriorContinuar »
ennoble man. Feeling this to be true, we wish success to genius, whatever direction it may take. And there never was a period, in which the mental excitement of the world was so great, or when authors were so sure of an audience; no age can compare with this, in the quantity of its literature, or in the number of readers. Kindred spirits now meet and commune, and every thought and feeling is sure of a response throughout the space over which civilisation has extended-and how proud must be the writer, who, with this consciousness, settles to his labour, knowing, that, as his mind glows, its warmth is diffused through a thousand others; that in distant countries he has formed friendships liable to none of the change a personal acquaintance with its rivalry, or the base, passions that sometimes embitter it, may produce, but which are based on a sympathy with his sentiments, a respect for his opinions, or some cause, free and disinterested, but awakened by the thrilling energy of the intellectual vibration. But, with this increased power of awakening interest, comes, too, a fearful responsibility. Equally with the ease with which fame may be gathered, and the soul expand itself, may mischief spread. On the two principles of evil and good, repose the destinies of man; but much more, now than heretofore, since the power of exerting both is multiplied.
With this view, it is clear with what anxious consideration a publication should be given to the world ; and, however encouraging may be the prospects, however well founded or ardent the hopes of the future fortunes of mankind from the strength with which the best intellects exert themselves, and the ease with which they gain access to the bosoms of all, yet from this very condition come the most fearful doubts. Experience, and it is the only wisdom worth much at any time, shows that neither truth nor virtue is the object of the constant and continued pursuit of men ; that the morbid craving of a bad ambition will often recklessly attempt the complete subversion of every principle of good; that the desire of power, and the pride of its exertion, will make men regardless of ruin; and that in proportion as the well-disposed rouse themselves to the defence of that they honour, the spirit of defiance increases in their antagonists. This open collision is better than secret war; and it is a conflict in which politics and philosophy, literature and religion, should engage ; each with the design of never unsettling without replacing, but with the yet safer and more lasting purpose of fixing principles.
This was the great aim of Coleridge's life. Living removed from the sphere of active exertion, and the scenes of real life, altogether undisturbed by the tempestuous excitement of the passions storming near him, with no interests at stake save
those belonging to the general welfare of his country, he devoted himself to that best usefulness of the patriot—the moral instruction and culture of his fellow citizens. He was the Plato of his time; but, with less worldly shrewdness than the old philosophers seemed to have found necessary to smooth the path of their opinions. He could not descend to be a popular writer, nor display common thoughts in the charm and glare of uncommon language; or become superficial, for the purpose of pleasing; or bring from the mines of deep thought, all its ore ready polished for use. The world have, of course, the right to distinguish those who make themselves the most agreeable; who, like courtiers, have an elegant manner and a judicious tact for the wily execution of their designs; but they have, at the same time, no right to condemn, as they often do, those who, with less plausibility, but more uprightness, with less judgment, but more honesty, exert their whole power in the cause of human improvement. Would that this remark was a calumny, and that the boasted attainments, and universally diffused knowledge of men, might break its force. Would that these were real existences, instead of subjects of fond ex. pectation, and interested panegyric. The world has, for a long time, been holding a strong conflict between experience and hope. The wisest men have uttered their predictions and warnings, and found them return, in the hollow mocking of contempt; the best spirits have thrown themselves into the breach, in defence of systems to which they were attached, and found all their efforts withered by some superior power. Events have gone their course, overcoming all restraint, trampling down all impediment. Their rapid and powerful progress has amazed all; those most sanguine for the future have looked on with a feeling of confusion mingled with pleasure; the most desponding have only gathered still more despair, and dread, and doubt; those who were fixed in their admiration and affection for the present state of things, though awed by the quick succession of wonder-teeming events, perplexed by the uncertainty of their direction, and harrowed by the danger that seemed to impend, have, according to their character, either surrendered the struggle, or been confirmed in the ardour of their opposition, and increased their efforts.
Such was the state of the world's moral health-and whoever undertook to make it better, must have felt the obstacles he was to contend with, and the hazard of failure. And it was at a time during the strongest ferment of the most agitated era the world has known, that Coleridge edited the Morning Post. No situation could have been more badly chosen, no mind worse calculated for its duties, than his. With thoughts little practised in realities, and ever indistinct to others, if not to himself, mystified and confused by brooding over obscure philosophical speculations, it could hardly be supposed that he would produce any effect, or be even remotely felt, amid the heat and violence of political excitement. England was at war with herself; for the only time in her annals, except partially during the reign of James the Second, she was contending with the most dangerous and powerful external foe she ever had; and at the same time, with faction, intrigue, and a revolutionary spirit within her bosom. If this should be denied, and the opposition to government be attributed to patriotic and liberal views, there was still enough admiration of France and her ruler, and their destructive principles, and a sufficiently open expression of this feeling among its leaders, to authorise that most fearful condition of things, where it extends over a country, and invades, as a part of necessary policy, the quiet obscurity of private life-the gloomy tyranny of suspicion. Even Coleridge, who began life like many young men, possessing the ardour of the poetical temperament, with a very fiery zeal for liberty, in the abstract, had attracted the notice of the government. He had retired to a distant part of the coast of England, impoverished by the bad fortune of his literary prospects, and broken by disappointment; yet he was hunted to this retreat, and a spy placed over him by the jealousy of those in power.
As illustrative of the times, and of the modest and even depreciating opinion a man of the best powers may form of himself, we will extract his own account from that most remarkable self-revelation, his Biographia Literaria.
“ Conscientiously an opponent of the first revolutionary war, yet with my eyes thoroughly opened to the true character and importance of the Cavourers of revolutionary principles in England-principles which I beld in abhorrence; (for it was part of my political creed, that whoever ceased to act as an individual by making himself a member of any society not sanctioned by his government, forfeited the rights of a citizen,) a vehement anti-ministerialist, but after the invasion of Switzerland a more vehement anti-gallican, and still more intensely an anti-jacobin, I retired to a cottage at Stowey, and provided for my scanty maintenance by writing verses for a London morning paper. I saw plainly, that literature was not a profession by which I could expect to live ; for I could not disguise from myself, that whatever my talents might or might not be, in other respects, yet they were not of the sort that could enable me to become a popular writer: and that whatever my opinions might be in themselves, they were almost equi-distant from all the three prominent parties, the Pittites, Foxites, and the democrats."
Yet at this time, suffering all the crushing influence of despair and despondency, from the apparent ruin of his prospects in the profession that from natural inclination he had chosen, as the most likely to gratify his ambition, and devoting himself, in his retreat, to “poetry, and the study of ethics, and psychology,"
the government sent a spy to watch his motions, as a dangerous plotter against the tranquillity of the realm. “Yet neither my retirement nor my utter abstraction from all the disputes of the day could secure me, in those jealous times, from suspicion and obloquy.” But the spy was fortunately a goodnatured person, and not sufficiently of the atrabilious temperament to suspect, without cause, or to blacken the conduct of his unsuspecting victim, or to traduce, to please his employer, one whose habits and pursuits were obviously too simple and studious to be those of an intriguer and traitor.
“After three weeks of truly Indian perseverance in tracking us, during all which time seldom were we out of doors, but he contrived to be within hearing-he declared his belief that both my friend and myself were as good subjects, for aught he could discover to the contrary, as any in his majesty's dominion. He had repeatedly hid himself for hours together behind a bank at the sea-side, and overhcard our conyersation. At first he fancied that we were aware of our danger: for he often heard me talk of one spy Nozy, which he was inclined to interpret of himself and of a remarkable feature belonging to him; but he was speedily convinced that it was the name of a man who made a book and lived long
His talking to the people of the village was regarded as exciting to discontent,—though, as the landlord of the village inn replied to the magistrate, “If what I have heard be true, your honour ! they would not have understood a word he said." And his walking with his books and papers was supposed to be with the design of taking charts and maps.
It was at this period of hopelessness and perplexity, that the generous and munificent patronage of two English gentlemen enabled him to finish his education in Germany, and to fix his already too strong inclination for philosophical speculation, by a residence among a people who seem ever roving through the labyrinth of metaphysics, and tracking their subtlety, till they are lost in the shadow of their own thoughts. He says of himself, “ At a very premature age, even before my fifteenth year, I had bewildered myself in metaphysics and theological controversy ;" —and in his instance circumstances seemed to confirm his disposition, " the child was father of the man” far more than is permitted to those who are compelled to make the world a scene of active struggle and contention. It was this peculiar bent of mind that unfitted Coleridge for all pursuits leading to or necessary for worldly advancement. There are not many instances of philosophers possessing what is called a business talent, that is, a tact for active exertion in the practical affairs of life. Bacon seems almost the only instance of a great mind so far acted on by ambition and necessity as to subdue the speculative disposition; and, it was with him, in the after part of life, a source of regret, that he had deserted the more
spacious and noble field, as well as more congenial, of philosophy, for the bitter excitement, the heated contention, of the courts of law. But to all minds the least disposed to observation and philosophic speculation, there is an interest and a novelty in every scene of life. Whatever regards man in general, his feelings, pursuits, passions, must be to such, and should be to all, a matter of study and thought.
To this faculty of keen remark we may owe the secret source of Shakspeare's power. He probably never refused an acquaintance or avoided a scene where were to be viewed the workings of strong feelings. He felt, that in the volcanic turbulence of the bosom, human nature might not be able to withstand the violence it has not been habitually taught to restrain, nor escape the ruin that ensues from its eruption : and feeling this, he could excuse and show a forbearance to the universally pervading weakness of man, where he saw the agent was impulse, and not a cool, fiendish determination to gratify self. He looked on men as so many spiritual existences,-as emanations from some superior power, -as deriving all they have of good or evil from him who created them,--and for some mysterious end; not as mere incarnations, animated by a principle that dies with the dust in which they are embodied. With this love and admiration for human nature, which all must have who wish to know man, he could look on the exhibition of the most degrading depravity,--on all that was wild and fierce in the display of man's energy,-on all that was base, corrupt, and humiliating, in their character, with no sense of anger, disgust, or contempt; but with a compassionate sorrow, that pain we feel in viewing the perversion of faculties designed for other ends and higher destinies. The wider and more intense the affections, the less disposed to judge harshly. A knowledge of mankind makes us lenient; for we can feel within ourselves the struggle between passion and principle, the desire always to be that which it is very easy to seem. It was this acquaintance with the best and worst parts of man's nature, with all the extremes to which his passions could bear him, and all their terrible results, that gave him the power of portraying with such vividness the gentle and winning grace of female character, the subtle delicacy and refinement of female feelings, the generous intemperance of youth, the gloomy malignity and cowardly ferocity of the deliberate murderer, the impetuosity of over-wrought passion, and all the host of ill-regulated desires that spring in undisciplined bosoms. It was this knowledge that made him the practical philosopher, and relieved him from the dreamy abstraction that loses itself in the enjoyment of empty speculation.
This habit of receiving all the world offers, as a philosopher,