« AnteriorContinuar »
nently forward. It is the religion which the poet has extracted from nature and man's moral instincts on which he mainly dwells ; yet it is such a religion, so pure and elevated, as these sources, but for the light they receive from a co-existent revelation, never could have supplied. In the crisis of the poem, when the poet has to apply his medicine to the mind diseased, and when the Solitary is importunate for an answer, the poet turns aside, and recommends communion with nature, and free intercourse with men, in a way which to many has seemed like a disavowal of the Christian faith. This seems, however, too severe a judgment. Wordsworth knew clearly that there are many cases in which, as the passages to the heart have been closed by false reasonings and morbid views, the way to it is not to be found by any direct arguments, however true. What is wanted is some antidote which shall bring back the feelings to a healthful tone, remove obstructions from within, and so, through restored health of heart, put the understanding in a condition which is open to the power of truth. Awaken healthful sensibilities in the heart, and a right state of intellect is sure to follow. This is Wordsworth's moral pathology. And the restorative discipline ho recommends is that which in his own mental trial he had found effectual. This I believe to be the true account; and yet one cannot help thinking there was not only room, but even a call, for a fuller enforcement of the Christian verities.” (p. 86.)
In a subsequent passage, Professor Shairp discusses the further question, What claim Wordsworth has to be considered a religious poet. We think he is right in his conclusion, that, notwithstanding passages in his poems which are Pantheistic in tendency, he never maintained Pantheistic philosophy; while, at the same time, when he was in the hey-day of imagination, the presence of nature stirred within him what is called the Pantheistic feeling in its highest and purest form. We note with pleasure instances which Professor Shairp adduces of Wordsworth's growing consciousness that his statements about the self-restorative power of the soul, and the sufficingness of nature to console the wounded spirit, were defective, and the consequent introduction of religious truth into the later edition of his poems, and we gladly close this portion of our subject with the further statement which Professor Shairp makes, leaving our readers to estimate its worth.
“No doubt the wish will at times arise, that the unequalled power of spiritualizing nature, and of originating tender and solemn views of human life, had, for the sake of other men, been oftener and more unreservedly turned on the great truths of Christian faith. When such a regret does arise, it is but fair that it should be tempered by remembering, as he himself urges, that "his works, as well as those of other poets, should not be considered as developing all the influences which his own heart recognised, but rather those which he felt able as an artist to display to advantage. At another time he assured a correspondent that he had been averse to frequent mention of the mysteries of Christian faith ; not because he did not duly feel them, but because he felt them too deeply to venture on a free handling of them.” (p. 113.)
Like Wordsworth, Coleridge was a Cambridge man, entering that University a month after Wordsworth had quitted it. Soon after, a Fellow of his College was accused of sedition, of defamation of the Church of England, and of holding Unitarian doctrines; for these he was condemned, and banished the University. Coleridge, who had adopted all these opinions, and was besides in debt and other troubles, deserted from his College in his second year, and finally left it without a degree. On his way from Cambridge he went to Oxford, and there met Southey, then an undergraduate at Balliol, as enthusiastic a democrat and Unitarian as himself. Few are ignorant of their great scheme of Pantisocracy, which was “to found a community in America, where a band of brothers, cultivated and pure minded, were to have all things in common, and selfishness was to be unknown. This common land was to be tilled by the common toil of the men; the wives—for all were to be married—were to perform all household duties; and abundant leisure was to remain over for social intercourse, or to pursue literature, or in more pensive moods,
"Soothed sadly by the dirgeful wind,
Muse on the sore ills they had left behind.' The banks of the Susquehanna were to be this earthly Paradise, chosen more for the melody of the name than for any ascer. tained advantage. Indeed, they hardly seem to have known where it was.”
As none of the party had money enough to pay their passage to America, the scheme collapsed, and Coleridge, who had married, bad to solve what he called the great “Bread and Cheese Question.” All sorts of plans were tried and failed. We have an amusing account from Coleridge's Recollections, of how he mounted the pulpit of a Unitarian chapel in Bath in blue coat and white waistcoat, and choosing a text from Isaiah, preached in the morning against the Corn Laws, and in the afternoon to a congregation of seventeen on the Hair Powder tax just abolished.
In 1778 he passed over to Germany with Wordsworth, and made his first acquaintance with the great intellectual movement in that country. The influence of it, on the whole, seems in his case to have been beneficial ; it could hardly, by any possibility, have made his politics more wild or his creed more barren. We cannot afford to dwell on the disastrous stage of degradation to which he reduced himself for some years subsequently by his inveterate habit of opium taking ; but quote with interest the description of the great religious change which came over him, when, in his Highgate home, he learned to abandon the deadly drug, and strove to redeem the remainder of his wasted life. We are told that
“The sense of moral weakness, and of sin, working inward contrition, made him seek for a more practical upholding faith than he had known in his early years. And so he learned, that while the consistency of Christianity with right reason and the historic evidence of miracles are the outworks, yet the vital centre of faith lies in the believer's feeling of his great need, and the experience that the redemption which is in Christ is what he needs,that it is the 'sorrow rising from beneath and the consolation meeting it from above,' the actual trial of the faith in Christ, which is its ultimate and most satisfying evidence. With him, too, as with many before, it was credidi, ideoque intellexi.” (p. 178.)
Twelve days before his death, he wrote the following remarkable letter to his godchild, which we are quite sure our readers will be glad to be reminded of, although quoted already in our columns shortly after Coleridge's death.
“My dear God-child. ... Years must pass before you will be able to read with an understanding heart what I now write; but I trust that the all-gracious God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, who by his only begotten Son (all mercies in one sovereign mercy) has redeemed you from the evil ground and willed you to be born out of darkness but into light; out of death but into life; out of sin bat into righteousness, even into the Lord our righteousness, I trust that he will graciously hear the prayers of your dear parents, and be with you as the spirit of health and growth in body and mind. ... I, too, your god-father, have known what the enjoyments and advantages of this life are, and what the more refined pleasures which learning and intellectual power can bestow; and, with the experience which more than three-score years can give, I now, on the eve of my departure, declare to you that health is a great blessing, competence obtained by honourable industry a great blessing, and a great blessing it is to have kind, faithful, and loving friends and relatives ; but that the greatest of all blessings, as it is the most ennobling of all privileges, is to be indeed a Christian. ... And now on the very brink of the grave I solemnly bear witness to you, that the Almighty Redeemer, most gracious in his promises to them that truly seek him, is faithful to perform what he hath promised, and has preserved, under all my pains and infirmities, the inward peace that passeth all understanding, with the supporting assurance of a reconciled God, who will not withdraw his Spirit from me in the conflict, and in his own time will deliver me from the evil one.
“Oh, my dear God-child ! eminently blessed are those who begin early to seek, fear, and love their God, trusting wholly in the righteousness and mediation of their Lord, Redeemer, Saviour, and everlasting High Priest, Jesus Christ.
“Oh, preserve this as a legacy and bequest from your unseen god. father and friend-S. T. COLERIDGE.” (pp. 182, 183.)
O si sic omnia ! But with such a confession of faith we can hardly wonder at the cynical sneer of Charles Lamb, that Coleridge after all was little better than a Christian. Those who care to pursue the matter further, and to ascertain what were the views entertained by Coleridge upon the most momentous questions of philosophy and religion, will find them eloquently expounded by Professor Shairp, and to him we would refer them. We cannot ourselves coincide to the full extent with his opinions, for we think that there was to the very last much that was defective and much that was dangerous in the tenets held by Coleridge, and that considerable mischief has accrued from his unbridled speculations. It would have been marvellous indeed if he had come unscathed out of the fearful mental conflicts which he had passed through ; and if the oppositions of science which he had not avoided, but had courted with life-long as. siduity, had not marred the simplicity of his holiest utterances, and left a pernicious impress upon his statements of doctrinal truth. But how vast the interval from the self-sufficient mate. rialist and Unitarian of 1800 to the dying man who, in 1834, professed to trust wholly in the mediation of his Lord, Redeemer, and Saviour, and everlasting High Priest, Jesus Christ!
Our object in recalling these great men to notice, is at a period when the wildest political and religious fancies are seething in the brains of intelligent young men; “ when, as in the early days of Wordsworth and Coleridge, multitudes are exulting over the ignorant past, glorying in the wonderful present; have got rid of all prejudices, have no strong belief except in material progress, and are tolerant of all tendencies except fanaticism”—to remind all whom our words may reach, that there is nothing new in all this; that it was all, a few years ago, tried to the uttermost, not only by those who received Christian truth with childlike faith and simplicity, but by other men of vast intellectual powers and varied learning; and that sages and learned men found all their unbelief in God, and all their belief in man, to be strong and unsatisfactory delusion. There was no extravagance of speculation which they did not entertain; no rejection of Christian belief which was not familiar to them; no wild adventure which they were not prepared to embark in to give form and substance to their unhealthy imaginings. If, as we fear, Oxford and Cambridge could now produce more than one Hartley, they could not fur
nish more devoted and enthusiastic upholders of materialistic, or, as Coleridge afterwards termed them, atheistic, views. But, we repeat it again, all these delusions were deliberately cast aside; more, we fear, as regards the men themselves, from the conviction of intellect that they were delusions, irrational and unphilosophical; than, so far as we can discover, from true change of heart and simple submission to the authority of revelation. “Have any of the rulers believed on him ?” is still virtually the question asked by many wise in their own conceit. It would not seriously matter if they had not, beyond the loss to themselves. Christianity has won its way to be the dominant religion of the world in defiance of them. But we can turn to such men as Wordsworth and Coleridge, and reply, Yes, well nigh despite themselves, after years of rejection of dogmatic truth and indulgence in the wildest dreams, ruling intellects have chased away what, after all, were but
“ignorant fumes that mantled
Their clearer reason.” If they did not apprehend Christian truth in all its fulness, yet, as Professor Shairp truly says, Coleridge knew the reason well, that the trained intellect is apt to eat out the child's heart, and that the "except ye become as little children” stands yet unrepealed. It is an awful penalty attaching to the possession of great knowledge of good and evil, that the possessor should, with all his progress and attainments, be left “ vecors.”
In the foregoing sketches of Wordsworth and Coleridge, we have made free use of Professor Shairp's statements, carefully omitting all, either in his volume or from extraneous sources, which might have interfered with the purpose we had in view. And what, then, is that purpose ? Is it to hold up these great men as models of Christian faith and excellence ? Most assuredly not. We believe more genuine insight into the truth and blessedness of Christianity can be gathered out of the records in Legh Richmond's tale of the Dairyman's Daughter, than even from the final experience and attainments of those gifted intellects; and more profit out of the Pilgrim's Progress, than out of all they ever wrote. One of the most truthful and noteworthy of Coleridge's statements we take to be that which he made to De Quincey, “ that prayer with the whole soul is the highest energy of which the human heart is capable, and that the great mass of worldly men and of learned men are absolutely incapable of prayer” (p. 237). Yet simple folk can, and do, as such records tell us, pray, and continue instant in prayer. While we honour Wordsworth and Coleridge for such testimony as they did bear, we note with mournful regret
Vol. 68.-No. 377.