Story type: Essay
What is the deadest of things earthly? It is, says the world, ever forward and rash–‘a door-nail!’ But the world is wrong. There is a thing deader than a door-nail, viz., Gillman’s Coleridge, Vol. I. Dead, more dead, most dead, is Gillman’s Coleridge, Vol. I.; and this upon more arguments than one. The book has clearly not completed its elementary act of respiration; the systole of Vol. I. is absolutely useless and lost without the diastole of that Vol. II., which is never to exist. That is one argument, and perhaps this second argument is stronger. Gillman’s Coleridge, Vol. I., deals rashly, unjustly, and almost maliciously, with some of our own particular friends; and yet, until late in this summer, Anno Domini 1844, we–that is, neither ourselves nor our friends–ever heard of its existence. Now a sloth, even without the benefit of Mr. Waterton’s evidence to his character, will travel faster than that. But malice, which travels fastest of all things, must be dead and cold at starting, when it can thus have lingered in the rear for six years; and therefore, though the world was so far right, that people do say, ‘Dead as a door-nail,’ yet, henceforward, the weakest of these people will see the propriety of saying–‘Dead as Gillman’s Coleridge.’
The reader of experience, on sliding over the surface of this opening paragraph, begins to think there’s mischief singing in the upper air. ‘No, reader, not at all. We never were cooler in our days. And this we protest, that, were it not for the excellence of the subject, Coleridge and Opium-Eating, Mr. Gillman would have been dismissed by us unnoticed. Indeed, we not only forgive Mr. Gillman, but we have a kindness for him; and on this account, that he was good, he was generous, he was most forbearing, through twenty years, to poor Coleridge, when thrown upon his hospitality. An excellent thing that, Mr. Gillman, till, noticing the theme suggested by this unhappy Vol. I., we are forced at times to notice its author, Nor is this to be regretted. We remember a line of Horace never yet properly translated, viz:–
‘Nec scutica dignum horribili sectere flagello.’
The true translation of which, as we assure the unlearned reader, is– ‘Nor must you pursue with the horrid knout of Christopher that man who merits only a switching.’ Very true. We protest against all attempts to invoke the exterminating knout; for that sends a man to the hospital for two months; but you see that the same judicious poet, who dissuades an appeal to the knout, indirectly recommends the switch, which, indeed, is rather pleasant than otherwise, amiably playful in some of its little caprices, and in its worst, suggesting only a pennyworth of diachylon.
We begin by professing, with hearty sincerity, our fervent admiration of the extraordinary man who furnishes the theme for Mr. Gillman’s coup-d’essai in biography. He was, in a literary sense, our brother–for he also was amongst the contributors to Blackwood— and will, we presume, take his station in that Blackwood gallery of portraits, which, in a century hence, will possess more interest for intellectual Europe than any merely martial series of portraits, or any gallery of statesmen assembled in congress, except as regards one or two leaders; for defunct major-generals, and secondary diplomatists, when their date is past, awake no more emotion than last year’s advertisements, or obsolete directories; whereas those who, in a stormy age, have swept the harps of passion, of genial wit, or of the wrestling and gladiatorial reason, become more interesting to men when they can no longer be seen as bodily agents, than even in the middle chorus of that intellectual music over which, living, they presided.
Of this great camp Coleridge was a leader, and fought amongst the primipili; yet, comparatively, he is still unknown. Heavy, indeed, are the arrears still due to philosophic curiosity on the real merits, and on the separate merits, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge as a poet–Coleridge as a philosopher! How extensive are those questions, if those were all! and upon neither question have we yet any investigation–such as, by compass of views, by research, or even by earnestness of sympathy with the subject, can, or ought to satisfy, a philosophic demand. Blind is that man who can persuade himself that the interest in Coleridge, taken as a total object, is becoming an obsolete interest. We are of opinion that even Milton, now viewed from a distance of two centuries, is still inadequately judged or appreciated in his character of poet, of patriot and partisan, or, finally, in his character of accomplished scholar. But, if so, how much less can it be pretended that satisfaction has been rendered to the claims of Coleridge? for, upon Milton, libraries have been written. There has been time for the malice of men, for the jealousy of men, for the enthusiasm, the scepticism, the adoring admiration of men, to expand themselves! There has been room for a Bentley, for an Addison, for a Johnson, for a wicked Lauder, for an avenging Douglas, for an idolizing Chateaubriand; and yet, after all, little enough has been done towards any comprehensive estimate of the mighty being concerned. Piles of materials have been gathered to the ground; but, for the monument which should have risen from these materials, neither the first stone has been laid, nor has a qualified architect yet presented his credentials. On the other hand, upon Coleridge little, comparatively, has yet been written, whilst the separate characters on which the judgment is awaited, are more by one than those which Milton sustained. Coleridge, also, is a poet; Coleridge, also, was mixed up with the fervent politics of his age–an age how memorably reflecting the revolutionary agitations of Milton’s age. Coleridge, also, was an extensive and brilliant scholar. Whatever might be the separate proportions of the two men in each particular department of the three here noticed, think as the reader will upon that point, sure we are that either subject is ample enough to make a strain upon the amplest faculties. How alarming, therefore, for any honest critic, who should undertake this later subject of Coleridge, to recollect that, after pursuing him through a zodiac of splendors corresponding to those of Milton in kind, however different in degree–after weighing him as a poet, as a philosophic politician, as a scholar, he will have to wheel after him into another orbit, into the unfathomable nimbus of transcendental metaphysics. Weigh him the critic must in the golden balance of philosophy the most abstruse–a balance which even itself requires weighing previously, or he will have done nothing that can be received for an estimate of the composite Coleridge. This astonishing man, be it again remembered, besides being an exquisite poet, a profound political speculator, a philosophic student of literature through all its chambers and recesses, was also a circumnavigator on the most pathless waters of scholasticism and metaphysics. He had sounded, without guiding charts, the secret deeps of Proclus and Plotinus; he had laid down buoys on the twilight, or moonlight, ocean of Jacob Boehmen; [Footnote: ‘JACOB BOEHMEN.’ We ourselves had the honor of presenting to Mr. Coleridge, Law’s English version of Jacob–a set of huge quartos. Some months afterwards we saw this work lying open, and one volume at least overflowing, in parts, with the commentaries and the corollaries of Coleridge. Whither has this work, and so many others swathed about with Coleridge’s MS. notes, vanished from the world?] he had cruised over the broad Atlantic of Kant and Schelling, of Fichte and Oken. Where is the man who shall be equal to these things? We at least make no such adventurous effort; or, if ever we should presume to do so, not at present. Here we design only to make a coasting voyage of survey round the headlands and most conspicuous seamarks of our subject, as they are brought forward by Mr. Gi
llman, or collaterally suggested by our own reflections; and especially we wish to say a word or two on Coleridge as an opium-eater.
Naturally the first point to which we direct our attention, is the history and personal relations of Coleridge. Living with Mr. Gillman for nineteen years as a domesticated friend, Coleridge ought to have been known intimately. And it is reasonable to expect, from so much intercourse, some additions to our slender knowledge of Coleridge’s adventures, (if we may use so coarse a word,) and of the secret springs at work in those early struggles of Coleridge at Cambridge, London, Bristol, which have been rudely told to the world, and repeatedly told, as showy romances, but never rationally explained.
The anecdotes, however, which Mr. Gillman has added to the personal history of Coleridge, are as little advantageous to the effect of his own book as they are to the interest of the memorable character which he seeks to illustrate. Always they are told without grace, and generally are suspicious in their details. Mr. Gillman we believe to be too upright a man for countenancing any untruth. He has been deceived. For example, will any man believe this? A certain ‘excellent equestrian’ falling in with Coleridge on horseback, thus accosted him– ‘Pray, Sir, did you meet a tailor along the road?’ ‘A tailor!’ answered Coleridge; ‘I did meet a person answering such a description, who told me he had dropped his goose; that if I rode a little further I should find it; and I guess he must have meant you.‘ In Joe Miller this story would read, perhaps, sufferably. Joe has a privilege; and we do not look too narrowly into the mouth of a Joe-Millerism. But Mr. Gillman, writing the life of a philosopher, and no jest-book, is under a different law of decorum. That retort, however, which silences the jester, it may seem, must be a good one. And we are desired to believe that, in this case, the baffled assailant rode off in a spirit of benign candor, saying aloud to himself, like the excellent philosopher that he evidently was, ‘Caught a Tartar!’
But another story of a sporting baronet, who was besides a Member of Parliament, is much worse, and altogether degrading to Coleridge. This gentleman, by way of showing off before a party of ladies, is represented as insulting Coleridge by putting questions to him on the qualities of his horse, so as to draw the animal’s miserable defects into public notice, and then closing his display by demanding what he would take for the horse ‘including the rider.’ The supposed reply of Coleridge might seem good to those who understand nothing of true dignity; for, as an impromptu, it was smart and even caustic. The baronet, it seems, was reputed to have been bought by the minister; and the reader will at once divine that the retort took advantage of that current belief, so as to throw back the sarcasm, by proclaiming that neither horse nor rider had a price placarded in the market at which any man could become their purchaser. But this was not the temper in which Coleridge either did reply, or could have replied. Coleridge showed, in the spirit of his manner, a profound sensibility to the nature of a gentleman; and he felt too justly what it became a self-respecting person to say, ever to have aped the sort of flashy fencing which might seem fine to a theatrical blood.
Another story is self-refuted: ‘A hired partisan’ had come to one of Coleridge’s political lectures with the express purpose of bringing the lecturer into trouble; and most preposterously he laid himself open to his own snare by refusing to pay for admission. Spies must be poor artists who proceed thus. Upon which Coleridge remarked–‘That, before the gentleman kicked up a dust, surely he would down with the dust.’ So far the story will not do. But what follows is possible enough. The same‘hired’ gentleman, by way of giving unity to the tale, is described as having hissed. Upon this a cry arose of ‘Turn him out!’ But Coleridge interfered to protect him; he insisted on the man’s right to hiss if he thought fit; it was legal to hiss; it was natural to hiss; ‘for what is to be expected, gentlemen, when the cool waters of reason come in contact with red-hot aristocracy, but a hiss?’ Euge!
Amongst all the anecdotes, however of this splendid man, often trivial, often incoherent, often unauthenticated, there is one which strikes us as both true and interesting; and we are grateful to Mr. Gillman for preserving it. We find it introduced, and partially authenticated, by the following sentence from Coleridge himself:–‘From eight to fourteen I was a playless day-dreamer, a helluo librorum; my appetite for which was indulged by a singular incident. A stranger, who was struck by my conversation, made me free of a circulating library in King’s Street, Cheapside.’ The more circumstantial explanation of Mr. Gillman is this: `The incident indeed was singular. Going down the Strand, in one of his day-dreams, fancying himself swimming across the Hellespont, thrusting his hands before him as in the act of swimming, his hand came in contact with a gentleman’s pocket. The gentleman seized his hand, turning round, and looking at him with some anger–“What! so young, and yet so wicked?” at the same time accused him of an attempt to pick his pocket. The frightened boy sobbed out his denial of the intention, and explained to him how he thought himself Leander swimming across the Hellespont. The gentleman was so struck and delighted with the novelty of the thing, and with the simplicity and intelligence of the boy, that he subscribed, as before stated, to the library; in consequence of which Coleridge was further enabled to indulge his love of reading.’
We fear that this slovenly narrative is the very perfection of bad story-telling. But the story itself is striking, and, by the very oddness of the incidents, not likely to have been invented. The effect, from the position of the two parties–on the one side, a simple child from Devonshire, dreaming in the Strand that he was swimming over from Sestos to Abydos, and, on the other, the experienced man, dreaming only of this world, its knaves and its thieves, but still kind and generous –is beautiful and picturesque. Oh! si sic omnia!
But the most interesting to us of the personalities connected with Coleridge are his feuds and his personal dislikes. Incomprehensible to us is the war of extermination which Coleridge made upon the political economists. Did Sir James Steuart, in speaking of vine-dressers, (not as vine-dressers, but generally as cultivators,) tell his readers, that, if such a man simply replaced his own consumption, having no surplus whatever or increment for the public capital, he could not be considered a useful citizen? Not the beast in the Revelation is held up by Coleridge as more hateful to the spirit of truth than the Jacobite baronet. And yet we know of an author–viz., one S. T. Coleridge–who repeated that same doctrine without finding any evil in it. Look at the first part of the Wallenstein, where Count Isolani having said, ‘Pooh! we are all his subjects,’ i. e., soldiers, (though unproductive laborers,) not less than productive peasants, the emperor’s envoy replies–‘Yet with a difference, general;’ and the difference implies Sir James’s scale, his vine-dresser being the equatorial case between the two extremes of the envoy. Malthus again, in his population-book, contends for a mathematic difference between animal and vegetable life, in respect to the law of increase, as though the first increased by geometrical ratios, the last by arithmetical! No proposition more worthy of laughter; since both, when permitted to expand, increase by geometrical ratios, and the latter by much higher ratios. Whereas, Malthus persuaded himself of his crotchet simply by refusing the requisite condition in the vegetable case, and granting it in the other. If you take a few grains of wheat, and are required to plant all successive generations of their produce in the same flower-pot for ever, of course you neutralize its expansion by your own act of arbitrary limitation. [Footnote: Malthus would have rejoined by saying–that the flowerpot limitation was the actual limitation of nature in our present circumstances. In America it is otherwise, he would say, but England is the very flowerpot you suppose; she is a flowerpot which cannot be multiplied, and cannot even be enlarged. Very well, so be it (which we say in order to waive irrelevant disputes). But then the true inference will be–not that vegetable increase proceeds under a different law from that which governs animal increase, but that, through an accident of position, the experiment cannot be tried in England. Surely the levers of Archimedes, with submission to Sir Edward B. Lytton, were not the less levers because he wanted the locum standi. It is proper, by the way, that we should inform the reader of this generation where to look for Coleridge’s skirmishings with Malthus. They are to be found chiefly in the late Mr. William Hazlitt’s work on that subject: a work which Coleridge so far claimed as to assert that it had been substantially made up from his own conversation.] But so you would do, if you tried the case of animal increase by still exterminating all but one replacing couple of parents. This is not to try, but merely a pretence of trying, one order of powers against another. That was folly. But Coleridge combated this idea in a manner so obscure, that nobody understood it. And leaving these speculative conundrums, in coming to the great practical interests afloat in the Poor Laws, Coleridge did so little real work, that he left, as a res integra, to Dr. Alison, the capital argument that legal and adequate provision for the poor, whether impotent poor or poor accidentally out of work, does not extend pauperism–no, but is the one great resource for putting it down. Dr. Alison’s overwhelming and experimental manifestations of that truth have prostrated Malthus and his generation for ever. This comes of not attending to the Latin maxim–‘Hoc age’–mind the object before you. Dr. Alison, a wise man, ‘hoc egit:’ Coleridge ‘aliud egit.’ And we see the result. In a case which suited him, by interesting his peculiar feeling, Coleridge could command
‘Attention full ten times as much as there needs.’
But search documents, value evidence, or thresh out bushels of statistical tables, Coleridge could not, any more than he could ride with Elliot’s dragoons.
Another instance of Coleridge’s inaptitude for such studies as political economy is found in his fancy, by no means ‘rich and rare,’ but meagre and trite, that taxes can never injure public prosperity by mere excess of quantity; if they injure, we are to conclude that it must be by their quality and mode of operation, or by their false appropriation, (as, for instance, if they are sent out of the country and spent abroad.) Because, says Coleridge, if the taxes are exhaled from the country as vapors, back they come in drenching showers. Twenty pounds ascend in a Scotch mist to the Chancellor of the Exchequer from Leeds; but does it evaporate? Not at all: By return of post down comes an order for twenty pounds’ worth of Leeds cloth, on account of Government, seeing that the poor men of the —-th regiment want new gaiters. True; but of this return twenty pounds, not more than four will be profit, i.e., surplus accruing to the public capital; whereas, of the original twenty pounds, every shilling was surplus. The same unsound fancy has been many times brought forward; often in England, often in France. But it is curious, that its first appearance upon any stage was precisely two centuries ago, when as yet political economy slept with the pre-Adamites, viz., in the Long Parliament. In a quarto volume of the debates during 1644-45, printed as an independent work, will be found the same identical doctrine, supported very sonorously by the same little love of an illustration from the see-saw of mist and rain.
Political economy was not Coleridge’s forte. In politics he was happier. In mere personal politics, he (like every man when reviewed from a station distant by forty years) will often appear to have erred; nay, he will be detected and nailed in error. But this is the necessity of us all. Keen are the refutations of time. And absolute results to posterity are the fatal touchstone of opinions in the past. It is undeniable, besides, that Coleridge had strong personal antipathies, for instance, to Messrs. Pitt and Dundas. Yet why, we never could understand. We once heard him tell a story upon Windermere, to the late Mr. Curwen, then M. P. for Workington, which was meant, apparently, to account for this feeling. The story amounted to this; that, when a freshman at Cambridge, Mr. Pitt had wantonly amused himself at a dinner party in Trinity, in smashing with filberts (discharged in showers like grape-shot) a most costly dessert set of cut glass, from which Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued a principle of destructiveness in his cerebellum. Now, if this dessert set belonged to some poor suffering Trinitarian, and not to himself, we are of opinion that he was faulty, and ought, upon his own great subsequent maxim, to have been coerced into ‘indemnity for the past, and security for the future.’ But, besides that this glassy mythus belongs to an aera fifteen years earlier than Coleridge’s so as to justify a shadow of scepticism, we really cannot find, in such an escapade under the boiling blood of youth, any sufficient justification of that withering malignity towards the name of Pitt, which runs through Coleridge’s famous Fire, Famine, and Slaughter. As this little viperous jeu-d’esprit (published anonymously) subsequently became the subject of a celebrated after-dinner discussion in London, at which Coleridge (comme de raison) was the chief speaker, the reader of this generation may wish to know the question at issue; and in order to judge of that, he must know the outline of this devil’s squib. The writer brings upon the scene three pleasant young ladies, viz., Miss Fire, Miss Famine, and Miss Slaughter. ‘What are you up to? What’s the row?’–we may suppose to be the introductory question of the poet. And the answer of the ladies makes us aware that they are fresh from larking in Ireland, and in France. A glorious spree they had; lots of fun; and laughter a discretion. At all times gratus puellae risus ab angulo; so that we listen to their little gossip with interest. They had been setting men, it seems, by the ears; and the drollest little atrocities they do certainly report. Not but we have seen better in the Nenagh paper, so far as Ireland is concerned. But the pet little joke was in La Vendee. Miss Famine, who is the girl for our money, raises the question–whether any of them can tell the name of the leader and prompter to these high jinks of hell–if so, let her whisper it.
‘Whisper it, sister, so and so,
In a dark hint–distinct and low.’
Upon which the playful Miss Slaughter replies:–
‘Letters four do form his name.
* * * * *
He came by stealth and unlock’d my den;
And I have drunk the blood since then
Of thrice three hundred thousand men.’
Good: but the sting of the hornet lies in the conclusion. If this quadriliteral man had done so much for them, (though really, we think, 6s. 8d. might have settled his claim,) what, says Fire, setting her arms a-kimbo, would they do for him? Slaughter replies, rather crustily, that, as far as a good kicking would go–or (says Famine) a little matter of tearing to pieces by the mob–they would be glad to take tickets at his benefit. ‘How, you bitches!’ says Fire, ‘is that all?
‘I alone am faithful; I
Cling to him everlastingly.’
The sentiment is diabolical. And the question argued at the London dinner-table was–Could the writer have been other than a devil? The dinner was at the late excellent Mr. Sotheby’s, known advantageously in those days as the translator of Wieland’s Oberon. Several of the great guns amongst the literary body were present; in particular, Sir Walter Scott; and he, we believe, with his usual good-nature, took the apologetic side of the dispute. In fact, he was in the secret. Nobody else, barring the author, knew at first whose good name was at stake. The scene must have been high. The company kicked about the poor diabolic writer’s head as if it had been a tennis-ball. Coleridge, the yet unknown criminal, absolutely perspired and fumed in pleading for the defendant; the company demurred; the orator grew urgent; wits began to smoke the case, as active verbs; the advocate to smoke, as a neuter verb; the ‘fun grew fast and furious;’ until at length delinquent arose, burning tears in his eyes, and confessed to an audience, (now bursting with stifled laughter, but whom he supposed to be bursting with fiery indignation,) ‘Lo! I am he that wrote it.’
For our own parts, we side with Coleridge. Malice is not always of the heart. There is a malice of the understanding and the fancy. Neither do we think the worse of a man for having invented the most horrible and old-woman-troubling curse that demons ever listened to. We are too apt to swear horribly ourselves; and often have we frightened the cat, to say nothing of the kettle, by our shocking [far too shocking!] oaths.
There were other celebrated men whom Coleridge detested, or seemed to detest–Paley, Sir Sidney Smith, Lord Hutchinson, (the last Lord Donoughmore,) and Cuvier. To Paley it might seem as if his antipathy had been purely philosophic; but we believe that partly it was personal; and it tallies with this belief, that, in his earliest political tracts, Coleridge charged the archdeacon repeatedly with his own joke, as if it had been a serious saying, viz.–‘That he could not afford to keep a conscience;’ such luxuries, like a carriage, for instance, being obviously beyond the finances of poor men.
With respect to the philosophic question between the parties, as to the grounds of moral election, we hope it is no treason to suggest that both were perhaps in error. Against Paley, it occurs at once that he himself would not have made consequences the practical test in valuing the morality of an act, since these can very seldom be traced at all up to the final stages, and in the earliest stages are exceedingly different under different circumstances; so that the same act, tried by its consequences, would bear a fluctuating appreciation. This could not have been Paley’s revised meaning. Consequently, had he been pressed by opposition, it would have come out, that by test he meant only speculative test: a very harmless doctrine certainly, but useless and impertinent to any purpose of his system. The reader may catch our meaning in the following illustration. It is a matter of general belief, that happiness, upon the whole, follows in a higher degree from constant integrity, than from the closest attention to self-interest. Now happiness is one of those consequences which Paley meant by final or remotest. But we could never use this idea as an exponent of integrity, or interchangeable criterion, because happiness cannot be ascertained or appreciated except upon long tracts of time, whereas the particular act of integrity depends continually upon the election of the moment. No man, therefore, could venture to lay down as a rule, Do what makes you happy; use this as your test of actions, satisfied that in that case always you will do the thing which is right. For he cannot discern independently what will make him happy; and he must decide on the spot. The use of the nexus between morality and happiness must therefore be inverted; it is not practical or prospective, but simply retrospective; and in that form it says no more than the good old rules hallowed in every cottage. But this furnishes no practical guide for moral election which a man had not, before he ever thought of this nexus. In the sense in which it is true, we need not go to the professor’s chair for this maxim; in the sense in which it would serve Paley, it is absolutely false.
On the other hand, as against Coleridge, it is certain that many acts could be mentioned which are judged to be good or bad only because their consequences are known to be so, whilst the great catholic acts of life are entirely (and, if we may so phrase it, haughtily) independent of consequences. For instance, fidelity to a trust is a law of immutable morality subject to no casuistry whatever. You have been left executor to a friend–you are to pay over his last legacy to X, though a dissolute scoundrel; and you are to give no shilling of it to the poor brother of X, though a good man, and a wise man, struggling with adversity. You are absolutely excluded from all contemplation of results. It was your deceased friend’s right to make the will; it is yours simply to see it executed. Now, in opposition to this primary class of actions stands another, such as the habit of intoxication, which are known to be wrong only by observing the consequences. If drunkenness did not terminate, after some years, in producing bodily weakness, irritability in the temper, and so forth, it would not be a vicious act. And accordingly, if a transcendent motive should arise in favor of drunkenness, as that it would enable you to face a degree of cold, or contagion, else menacing to life, a duty would arise, pro hac vice, of getting drunk. We had an amiable friend who suffered under the infirmity of cowardice; an awful coward he was when sober; but, when very drunk, he had courage enough for the Seven Champions of Christendom, Therefore, in an emergency, where he knew himself suddenly loaded with the responsibility of defending a family, we approved highly of his getting drunk. But to violate a trust could never become right under any change of circumstances. Coleridge, however, altogether overlooked this distinction: which, on the other hand, stirring in Paley’s mind, but never brought out to distinct consciousness, nor ever investigated, nor limited, has undermined his system. Perhaps it is not very important how a man theorizes upon morality; happily for us all, God has left no man in such questions practically to the guidance of his understanding; but still, considering that academic bodies are partly instituted for the support of speculative truth as well as truth practical, we must think it a blot upon the splendor of Oxford and Cambridge that both of them, in a Christian land, make Paley the foundation of their ethics; the alternative being Aristotle. And, in our mind, though far inferior as a moralist to the Stoics, Aristotle is often less of a pagan than Paley.
Coleridge’s dislike to Sir Sidney Smith and the Egyptian Lord Hutchinson fell under the category of Martial’s case.
‘Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare,
Hoc solum novi–non amo te, Sabidi.’
Against Lord Hutchinson, we never heard him plead anything of moment, except that he was finically Frenchified in his diction; of which he gave this instance–that having occasion to notice a brick wall, (which was literally that, not more and not less,) when reconnoitring the French defences, he called it a revetement. And we ourselves remember his using the French word gloriole rather ostentatiously; that is, when no particular emphasis attached to the case. But every man has his foibles; and few, perhaps, are less conspicuously annoying than this of Lord Hutchinson’s. Sir Sidney’s crimes were less distinctly revealed to our mind. As to Cuvier, Coleridge’s hatred of him was more to our taste; for (though quite unreasonable, we fear) it took the shape of patriotism. He insisted on it, that our British John Hunter was the genuine article, and that Cuvier was a humbug. Now, speaking privately to the public, we cannot go quite so far as that. But, when publicly we address that most respectable character, en grand costume, we always mean to back Coleridge. For we are a horrible John Bull ourselves. As Joseph Hume observes, it makes no difference to us–right or wrong, black or white–when our countrymen are concerned. And John Hunter, notwithstanding he had a bee in his bonnet, [Footnote: Vide, in particular, for the most exquisite specimen of pigheadedness that the world can furnish, his perverse evidence on the once famous case at the Warwick assizes, of Captain Donelan for poisoning his brother-in-law, Sir Theodosius Boughton.] was really a great man; though it will not follow that Cuvier must, therefore, have been a little one. We do not pretend to be acquainted with the tenth part of Cuvier’s performances; but we suspect that Coleridge’s range in that respect was not much greater than our own.
Other cases of monomaniac antipathy we might revive from our recollections of Coleridge, had we a sufficient motive. But in compensation, and by way of redressing the balance, he had many strange likings–equally monomaniac–and, unaccountably, he chose to exhibit his whimsical partialities by dressing up, as it were, in his own clothes, such a set of scarecrows as eye has not beheld. Heavens! what an ark of unclean beasts would have been Coleridge’s private menagerie of departed philosophers, could they all have been trotted out in succession! But did the reader feel them to be the awful bores which, in fact, they were? No; because Coleridge had blown upon these withered anatomies, through the blowpipe of his own creative genius, a stream of gas that swelled the tissue of their antediluvian wrinkles, forced color upon their cheeks, and splendor upon their sodden eyes. Such a process of ventriloquism never has existed. He spoke by their organs. They were the tubes; and he forced through their wooden machinery his own Beethoven harmonies.
First came Dr. Andrew Bell. We knew him. Was he dull? Is a wooden spoon dull? Fishy were his eyes; torpedinous was his manner; and his main idea, out of two which he really had, related to the moon–from which you infer, perhaps, that he was lunatic. By no means. It was no craze, under the influence of the moon, which possessed him; it was an idea of mere hostility to the moon. The Madras people, like many others, had an idea that she influenced the weather. Subsequently the Herschels, senior and junior, systematized this idea; and then the wrath of Andrew, previously in a crescent state, actually dilated to a plenilunar orb. The Westmoreland people (for at the lakes it was we knew him) expounded his condition to us by saying that he was ‘maffled;’ which word means ‘perplexed in the extreme.’ His wrath did not pass into lunacy; it produced simple distraction; an uneasy fumbling with the idea; like that of an old superannuated dog who longs to worry, but cannot for want of teeth. In this condition you will judge that he was rather tedious. And in this condition Coleridge took him up. Andrew’s other idea, because he had two, related to education. Perhaps six-sevenths of that also came from Madras. No matter, Coleridge took that up; Southey also; but Southey with his usual temperate fervor. Coleridge, on the other hand, found celestial marvels both in the scheme and in the man. Then commenced the apotheosis of Andrew Bell: and because it happened that his opponent, Lancaster, between ourselves, really had stolen his ideas from Bell, what between the sad wickedness of Lancaster and the celestial transfiguration of Bell, gradually Coleridge heated himself to such an extent, that people, when referring to that subject, asked each other, ‘Have you heard Coleridge lecture on Bel and the Dragon?‘
The next man glorified by Coleridge was John Woolman, the Quaker. Him, though we once possessed his works, it cannot be truly affirmed that we ever read. Try to read John, we often did; but read John we did not. This, however, you say, might be our fault, and not John’s. Very likely. And we have a notion that now, with our wiser thoughts, we should read John, if he were here on this table. It is certain that he was a good man, and one of the earliest in America, if not in Christendom, who lifted up his hand to protest against the slave-trade. But still, we suspect, that had John been all that Coleridge represented, he would not have repelled us from reading his travels in the fearful way that he did. But, again, we beg pardon, and entreat the earth of Virginia to lie light upon the remains of John Woolman; for he was an Israelite, indeed, in whom there was no guile.
The third person raised to divine honors by Coleridge was Bowyer, the master of Christ’s Hospital, London–a man whose name rises into the nostrils of all who knew him with the gracious odor of a tallow- chandler’s melting-house upon melting day, and whose memory is embalmed in the hearty detestation of all his pupils. Coleridge describes this man as a profound critic. Our idea of him is different. We are of opinion that Bowyer was the greatest villain of the eighteenth century. We may be wrong; but we cannot be far wrong. Talk of knouting indeed! which we did at the beginning of this paper in the mere playfulness of our hearts–and which the great master of the knout, Christopher, who visited men’s trespasses like the Eumenides, never resorted to but in love for some great idea which had been outraged; why, this man knouted his way through life, from bloody youth up to truculent old age. Grim idol! whose altars reeked with children’s blood, and whose dreadful eyes never smiled except as the stern goddess of the Thugs smiles, when the sound of human lamentations inhabits her ears. So much had the monster fed upon this great idea of ‘flogging,’ and transmuted it into the very nutriment of his heart, that he seems to have conceived the gigantic project of flogging all mankind; nay worse, for Mr. Gillman, on Coleridge’s authority, tells us (p. 24) the following anecdote:–‘”Sirrah, I’ll flog you,” were words so familiar to him, that on one occasion some female friend of one of the boys,’ (who had come on an errand of intercession,) ‘still lingering at the door, after having been abruptly told to go, Bowyer exclaimed–“Bring that woman here, and I’ll flog her.”‘
To this horrid incarnation of whips and scourges, Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, ascribes ideas upon criticism and taste, which every man will recognise as the intense peculiarities of Coleridge. Could these notions really have belonged to Bowyer, then how do we know but he wrote The Ancient Mariner? Yet, on consideration, no. For even Coleridge admitted that, spite of his fine theorizing upon composition, Mr. Bowyer did not prosper in the practice. Of which he gave us this illustration; and as it is supposed to be the only specimen of the Bowyeriana which now survives in this sublunary world, we are glad to extend its glory. It is the most curious example extant of the melodious in sound:–
”Twas thou that smooth’d’st the rough-rugg’d bed of pain.’
‘Smooth’d’st!’ Would the teeth of a crocodile not splinter under that word? It seems to us as if Mr. Bowyer’s verses ought to be boiled before they can be read. And when he says, ‘Twas thou, what is the wretch talking to? Can he be apostrophizing the knout? We very much fear it. If so, then, you see (reader!) that, even when incapacitated by illness from operating, he still adores the image of his holy scourge, and invokes it as alone able to smooth ‘his rough-rugg’d bed.’ Oh, thou infernal Bowyer! upon whom even Trollope (History of Christ’s Hospital) charges ‘a discipline tinctured with more than due severity;’–can there be any partners found for thee in a quadrille, except Draco, the bloody lawgiver, Bishop Bonner, and Mrs. Brownrigg?
The next pet was Sir Alexander Ball. Concerning Bowyer, Coleridge did not talk much, but chiefly wrote; concerning Bell, he did not write much, but chiefly talked. Concerning Ball, however, he both wrote and talked. It was in vain to muse upon any plan for having Ball blackballed, or for rebelling against Bell. Think of a man, who had fallen into one pit called Bell; secondly, falling into another pit called Ball. This was too much. We were obliged to quote poetry against them:–
‘Letters four do form his name;
He came by stealth and unlock’d my den;
And the nightmare I have felt since then
Of thrice three hundred thousand men.’
Not that we insinuate any disrespect to Sir Alexander Ball. He was about the foremost, we believe, in all good qualities, amongst Nelson’s admirable captains at the Nile. He commanded a seventy-four most effectually in that battle; he governed Malta as well as Sancho governed Barataria; and he was a true practical philosopher–as, indeed, was Sancho. But still, by all that we could ever learn, Sir Alexander had no taste for the abstract upon any subject; and would have read, as mere delirious wanderings, those philosophic opinions which Coleridge fastened like wings upon his respectable, but astounded, shoulders.
We really beg pardon for having laughed a little at these crazes of Coleridge. But laugh we did, of mere necessity, in those days, at Bell and Ball, whenever we did not groan. And, as the same precise alternative offered itself now, viz., that, in recalling the case, we must reverberate either the groaning or the laughter, we presumed the reader would vote for the last. Coleridge, we are well convinced, owed all these wandering and exaggerated estimates of men–these diseased impulses, that, like the mirage, showed lakes and fountains where in reality there were only arid deserts, to the derangements worked by opium. But now, for the sake of change, let us pass to another topic. Suppose we say a word or two on Coleridge’s accomplishments as a scholar. We are not going to enter on so large a field as that of his scholarship in connection with his philosophic labors, scholarship in the result; not this, but scholarship in the means and machinery, range of verbal scholarship, is what we propose for a moment’s review.
For instance, what sort of a German scholar was Coleridge? We dare say that, because in his version of the Wallenstein there are some inaccuracies, those who may have noticed them will hold him cheap in this particular pretension. But, to a certain degree, they will be wrong. Coleridge was not very accurate in anything but in the use of logic. All his philological attainments were imperfect. He did not talk German; or so obscurely–and, if he attempted to speak fast, so erroneously–that in his second sentence, when conversing with a German lady of rank, he contrived to assure her that in his humble opinion she was a —-. Hard it is to fill up the hiatus decorously; but, in fact, the word very coarsely expressed that she was no better than she should be. Which reminds us of a parallel misadventure to a German, whose colloquial English had been equally neglected. Having obtained an interview with an English lady, he opened his business (whatever it might be) thus–‘High-born madam, since your husband have kicked de bucket’—-‘Sir!’ interrupted the lady, astonished and displeased. ‘Oh, pardon!–nine, ten thousand pardon! Now, I make new beginning–quite oder beginning. Madam, since your husband have cut his stick’—-It may be supposed that this did not mend matters; and, reading that in the lady’s countenance, the German drew out an octavo dictionary, and said, perspiring with shame at having a second time missed fire,–‘Madam, since your husband have gone to kingdom come’—- This he said beseechingly; but the lady was past propitiation by this time, and rapidly moved towards the door. Things had now reached a crisis; and, if something were not done quickly, the game was up. Now, therefore, taking a last hurried look at his dictionary, the German flew after the lady, crying out in a voice of despair–‘Madam, since your husband, your most respected husband, have hopped de twig’—-This was his sheet-anchor; and, as this also came home, of course the poor man was totally wrecked. It turned out that the dictionary he had used (Arnold’s, we think,)–a work of a hundred years back, and, from mere ignorance, giving slang translations from Tom Brown, L’Estrange, and other jocular writers–had put down the verb sterben (to die) with the following worshipful series of equivalents–1. To kick the bucket; 2. To cut one’s stick; 3. To go to kingdom come; 4. To hop the twig.
But, though Coleridge did not pretend to any fluent command of conversational German, he read it with great ease. His knowledge of German literature was, indeed, too much limited by his rare opportunities for commanding anything like a well-mounted library. And particularly it surprised us that Coleridge knew little or nothing of John Paul (Richter). But his acquaintance with the German philosophic masters was extensive. And his valuation of many individual German words or phrases was delicate and sometimes profound.
As a Grecian, Coleridge must be estimated with a reference to the state and standard of Greek literature at that time and in this country. Porson had not yet raised our ideal. The earliest laurels of Coleridge were gathered, however, in that field. Yet no man will, at this day, pretend that the Greek of his prize ode is sufferable. Neither did Coleridge ever become an accurate Grecian in later times, when better models of scholarship, and better aids to scholarship, had begun to multiply. But still we must assert this point of superiority for Coleridge, that, whilst he never was what may be called a well-mounted scholar in any department of verbal scholarship, he yet displayed sometimes a brilliancy of conjectural sagacity, and a felicity of philosophic investigation, even in this path, such as better scholars do not often attain, and of a kind which cannot be learned from books. But, as respects his accuracy, again we must recall to the reader the state of Greek literature in England during Coleridge’s youth; and, in all equity, as a means of placing Coleridge in the balances, specifically we must recall the state of Greek metrical composition at that period.
To measure the condition of Greek literature even in Cambridge, about the initial period of Coleridge, we need only look back to the several translations of Gray’s Elegy by three (if not four) of the reverend gentlemen at that time attached to Eton College. Mathias, no very great scholar himself in this particular field, made himself merry, in his Pursuits of Literature, with these Eton translations. In that he was right. But he was not right in praising a contemporary translation by Cook, who (we believe) was the immediate predecessor of Porson in the Greek chair. As a specimen of this translation, [Footnote: It was printed at the end of Aristotle’s Poetics, which Dr. Cook edited.] we cite one stanza; and we cannot be supposed to select unfairly, because it is the stanza which Mathias praises in extravagant terms. “Here,” says he, “Gray, Cook, and Nature, do seem to contend for the mastery.” The English quatrain must be familiar to every body:–
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Await alike the inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
And the following, we believe, though quoting from a thirty-three years’ recollection of it, is the exact Greek version of Cook:–
‘A charis eugenon, charis a basilaeidos achas
Lora tuchaes chryseaes, Aphroditaes kala ta dora,
Paith ama tauta tethiake, kai eiden morsimon amar
Proon kle olole, kai ocheto xunon es Adaen.’
Now really these verses, by force of a little mosaic tesselation from genuine Greek sources, pass fluently over the tongue; but can they be considered other than a cento? Swarms of English schoolboys, at this day, would not feel very proud to adopt them. In fact, we remember (at a period say twelve years later than this) some iambic verses, which were really composed by a boy, viz., a son of Dr. Prettyman, (afterwards Tomline,) Bishop of Winchester, and, in earlier times, private tutor to Mr. Pitt; they were published by Middleton, first Bishop of Calcutta, in the preface to his work on the Greek article; and for racy idiomatic Greek, self-originated, and not a mere mocking- bird’s iteration of alien notes, are so much superior to all the attempts of these sexagenarian doctors, as distinctly to mark the growth of a new era and a new generation in this difficult accomplishment, within the first decennium of this century. It is singular that only one blemish is suggested by any of the contemporary critics in Dr. Cook’s verses, viz., in the word xunon, for which this critic proposes to substitute ooinon, to prevent, as he observes, the last syllable of ocheto from being lengthened by the x. Such considerations as these are necessary to the trutinae castigatio, before we can value Coleridge’s place on the scale of his own day; which day, quoad hoc, be it remembered, was 1790.
As to French, Coleridge read it with too little freedom to find pleasure in French literature. Accordingly, we never recollect his referring for any purpose, either of argument or illustration, to a French classic. Latin, from his regular scholastic training, naturally he read with a scholar’s fluency; and indeed, he read constantly in authors, such as Petrarch, Erasmus, Calvin, etc., whom he could not then have found in translations. But Coleridge had not cultivated an acquaintance with the delicacies of classic Latinity. And it is remarkable that Wordsworth, educated most negligently at Hawkshead school, subsequently by reading the lyric poetry of Horace, simply for his own delight as a student of composition, made himself a master of Latinity in its most difficult form; whilst Coleridge, trained regularly in a great Southern school, never carried his Latin to any classical polish.
There is another accomplishment of Coleridge’s, less broadly open to the judgment of this generation, and not at all of the next–viz., his splendid art of conversation, on which it will be interesting to say a word. Ten years ago, when the music of this rare performance had not yet ceased to vibrate in men’s ears, what a sensation was gathering amongst the educated classes on this particular subject! What a tumult of anxiety prevailed to ‘hear Mr. Coleridge’–or even to talk with a man who had heard him! Had he lived till this day, not Paganini would have been so much sought after. That sensation is now decaying; because a new generation has emerged during the ten years since his death. But many still remain whose sympathy (whether of curiosity in those who did not know him, or of admiration in those who did) still reflects as in a mirror the great stir upon this subject which then was moving in the world. To these, if they should inquire for the great distinguishing principle of Coleridge’s conversation, we might say that it was the power of vast combination ‘in linked sweetness long drawn out.’ He gathered into focal concentration the largest body of objects, apparently disconnected, that any man ever yet, by any magic, could assemble, or, having assembled, could manage. His great fault was, that, by not opening sufficient spaces for reply or suggestion, or collateral notice, he not only narrowed his own field, but he grievously injured the final impression. For when men’s minds are purely passive, when they are not allowed to re-act, then it is that they collapse most, and that their sense of what is said must ever be feeblest. Doubtless there must have been great conversational masters elsewhere, and at many periods; but in this lay Coleridge’s characteristic advantage, that he was a great natural power, and also a great artist. He was a power in the art, and he carried a new art into the power.
But now, finally–having left ourselves little room for more–one or two words on Coleridge as an opium-eater.
We have not often read a sentence falling from a wise man with astonishment so profound, as that particular one in a letter of Coleridge’s to Mr. Gillman, which speaks of the effort to wean one’s- self from opium as a trivial task. There are, we believe, several such passages. But we refer to that one in particular which assumes that a single ‘week’ will suffice for the whole process of so mighty a revolution. Is indeed leviathan so tamed? In that case the quarantine of the opium-eater might be finished within Coleridge’s time, and with Coleridge’s romantic ease. But mark the contradictions of this extraordinary man. Not long ago we were domesticated with a venerable rustic, strong-headed, but incurably obstinate in his prejudices, who treated the whole body of medical men as ignorant pretenders, knowing absolutely nothing of the system which they professed to superintend. This, you will remark, is no very singular case. No; nor, as we believe, is the antagonist case of ascribing to such men magical powers. Nor, what is worse still, the co-existence of both cases in the same mind, as in fact happened here. For this same obstinate friend of ours, who treated all medical pretensions as the mere jest of the universe, every ‘third day was exacting from his own medical attendants some exquisite tour-de-force, as that they should know or should do something, which, if they had known or done, all men would have suspected them reasonably of magic. He rated the whole medical body as infants; and yet what he exacted from them every third day as a matter of course, virtually presumed them to be the only giants within the whole range of science. Parallel and equal is the contradiction of Coleridge. He speaks of opium excess, his own excess, we mean–the excess of twenty-five years–as a thing to be laid aside easily and for ever within seven days; and yet, on the other hand, he describes it pathetically, sometimes with a frantic pathos, as the scourge, the curse, the one almighty blight which had desolated his life.
This shocking contradiction we need not press. All readers will see that. But some will ask–Was Mr. Coleridge right in either view? Being so atrociously wrong in the first notion, (viz., that the opium of twenty-five years was a thing easily to be forsworn,) where a child could know that he was wrong, was he even altogether right, secondly, in believing that his own life, root and branch, had been withered by opium? For it will not follow, because, with a relation to happiness and tranquillity, a man may have found opium his curse, that therefore, as a creature of energies and great purposes, he must have been the wreck which he seems to suppose. Opium gives and takes away. It defeats the steady habit of exertion, but it creates spasms of irregular exertion; it ruins the natural power of life, but it develops preternatural paroxysms of intermitting power. Let us ask of any man who holds that not Coleridge himself but the world, as interested in Coleridge’s usefulness, has suffered by his addiction to opium; whether he is aware of the way in which opium affected Coleridge; and secondly, whether he is aware of the actual contributions to literature–how large they were–which Coleridge made in spite of opium. All who were intimate with Coleridge must remember the fits of genial animation which were created continually in his manner and in his buoyancy of thought by a recent or by an extra dose of the omnipotent drug. A lady, who knew nothing experimentally of opium, once told us, that she ‘could tell when Mr. Coleridge had taken too much opium by his shining countenance.’ She was right; we know that mark of opium excesses well, and the cause of it; or at least we believe the cause to lie in the quickening of the insensible perspiration which accumulates and glistens on the face. Be that as it may, a criterion it was that could not deceive us as to the condition of Coleridge. And uniformly in that condition he made his most effective intellectual displays. It is true that he might not be happy under this fiery animation, and we fully believe that he was not. Nobody is happy under laudanum except for a very short term of years. But in what way did that operate upon his exertions as a writer? We are of opinion that it killed Coleridge as a poet. ‘The harp of Quantock’ was silenced for ever by the torment of opium. But proportionably it roused and stung by misery his metaphysical instincts into more spasmodic life. Poetry can flourish only in the atmosphere of happiness. But subtle and perplexed investigations of difficult problems are amongst the commonest resources for beguiling the sense of misery. And for this we have the direct authority of Coleridge himself speculating on his own case. In the beautiful though unequal ode entitled Dejection, stanza six, occurs the following passage:
‘For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man—
This was my sole resource, my only plan;
Till that, which suits a part, infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.’
Considering the exquisite quality of some poems which Coleridge has composed, nobody can grieve (or has grieved) more than ourselves, at seeing so beautiful a fountain choked up with weeds. But had Coleridge been a happier man, it is our fixed belief that we should have had far less of his philosophy, and perhaps, but not certainly, might have had more of his general literature. In the estimate of the public, doubtless, that will seem a bad exchange. Every man to his taste. Meantime, what we wish to show is, that the loss was not absolute, but merely relative.
It is urged, however, that, even on his philosophic speculations, opium operated unfavorably in one respect, by often causing him to leave them unfinished. This is true. Whenever Coleridge (being highly charged, or saturated, with opium) had written with distempered vigor upon any question, there occurred soon after a recoil of intense disgust, not from his own paper only, but even from the subject. All opium-eaters are tainted with the infirmity of leaving works unfinished, and suffering reactions of disgust. But Coleridge taxed himself with that infirmity in verse before he could at all have commenced opium-eating. Besides, it is too much assumed by Coleridge and by his biographer, that to leave off opium was of course to regain juvenile health. But all opium-eaters make the mistake of supposing every pain or irritation which they suffer to be the product of opium. Whereas a wise man will say, suppose you do leave off opium, that will not deliver you from the load of years (say sixty-three) which you carry on your back. Charles Lamb, another man of true genius, and another head belonging to the Blackwood Gallery, made that mistake in his Confessions of a Drunkard. ‘I looked back,’ says he, ‘to the time when always, on waking in the morning, I had a song rising to my lips.’ At present, it seems, being a drunkard, he has no such song. Ay, dear Lamb, but note this, that the drunkard was fifty-six years old, the songster was twenty-three. Take twenty-three from fifty-six, and we have some reason to believe that thirty-three will remain; which period of thirty-three years is a pretty good reason for not singing in the morning, even if brandy has been out of the question.
It is singular, as respects Coleridge, that Mr. Gillman never says one word upon the event of the great Highgate experiment for leaving off laudanum, though Coleridge came to Mr. Gillman’s for no other purpose; and in a week, this vast creation of new earth, sea, and all that in them is, was to have been accomplished. We rayther think, as Bayley junior observes, that the explosion must have hung fire. But that is a trifle. We have another pleasing hypothesis on the subject. Mr. Wordsworth, in his exquisite lines written on a fly-leaf of his own Castle of Indolence, having described Coleridge as ‘a noticeable man with large grey eyes,’ goes on to say, ‘He’ (viz., Coleridge) ‘did that other man entice’ to view his imagery. Now we are sadly afraid that ‘the noticeable man with large grey eyes’ did entice ‘that other man,’ viz., Gillman, to commence opium-eating. This is droll; and it makes us laugh horribly. Gillman should have reformed him; and lo! he corrupts Gillman. S. T. Coleridge visited Highgate by way of being converted from the heresy of opium; and the issue is–that, in two months’ time, various grave men, amongst whom our friend Gillman marches first in great pomp, are found to have faces shining and glorious as that of AEsculapius; a fact of which we have already explained the secret meaning. And scandal says (but then what will not scandal say?) that a hogshead of opium goes up daily through Highgate tunnel. Surely one corroboration of our hypothesis may be found in the fact, that Vol. I. of Gillman’s Coleridge is for ever to stand unpropped by Vol. II. For we have already observed, that opium- eaters, though good fellows upon the whole, never finish anything.
What then? A man has a right never to finish anything. Certainly he has; and by Magna Charta. But he has no right, by Magna Charta or by Parva Charta, to slander decent men, like ourselves and our friend the author of the Opium Confessions. Here it is that our complaint arises against Mr. Gillman. If he has taken to opium-eating, can we help that? If his face shines, must our faces be blackened? He has very improperly published some intemperate passages from Coleridge’s letters, which ought to have been considered confidential, unless Coleridge had left them for publication, charging upon the author of the Opium Confessions a reckless disregard of the temptations which, in that work, he was scattering abroad amongst men. Now this author is connected with ourselves, and we cannot neglect his defence, unless in the case that he undertakes it himself.
We complain, also, that Coleridge raises (and is backed by Mr. Gillman in raising) a distinction perfectly perplexing to us, between himself and the author of the Opium Confessions upon the question–Why they severally began the practice of opium-eating? In himself, it seems, this motive was to relieve pain, whereas the Confessor was surreptitiously seeking for pleasure. Ay, indeed–where did he learn that? We have no copy of the Confessions here, so we cannot quote chapter and verse; but we distinctly remember, that toothache is recorded in that book as the particular occasion which first introduced the author to the knowledge of opium. Whether afterwards, having been thus initiated by the demon of pain, the opium confessor did not apply powers thus discovered to purposes of mere pleasure, is a question for himself; and the same question applies with the same cogency to Coleridge. Coleridge began in rheumatic pains. What then? This is no proof that he did not end in voluptuousness. For our parts, we are slow to believe that ever any man did, or could, learn the somewhat awful truth, that in a certain ruby-colored elixir, there lurked a divine power to chase away the genius of ennui, without subsequently abusing this power. To taste but once from the tree of knowledge, is fatal to the subsequent power of abstinence. True it is, that generations have used laudanum as an anodyne, (for instance, hospital patients,) who have not afterwards courted its powers as a voluptuous stimulant; but that, be sure, has arisen from no abstinence in them. There are, in fact, two classes of temperaments as to this terrific drug–those which are, and those which are not, preconformed to its power; those which genially expand to its temptations, and those which frostily exclude them. Not in the energies of the will, but in the qualities of the nervous organization, lies the dread arbitration of–Fall or stand: doomed thou art to yield; or, strengthened constitutionally, to resist. Most of those who have but a low sense of the spells lying couchant in opium, have practically none at all. For the initial fascination is for them effectually defeated by the sickness which nature has associated with the first stages of opium-eating. But to that other class, whose nervous sensibilities vibrate to their profoundest depths under the first touch of the angelic poison, even as a lover’s ear thrills on hearing unexpectedly the voice of her whom he loves, opium is the Amreeta cup of beatitude. You know the Paradise Lost? and you remember, from the eleventh book, in its earlier part, that laudanum already existed in Eden–nay, that it was used medicinally by an archangel; for, after Michael had ‘purged with euphrasy and rue’ the eyes of Adam, lest he should be unequal to the mere sight of the great visions about to unfold their draperies before him, next he fortifies his fleshly spirits against the affliction of these visions, of which visions the first was death. And how?
‘He from the well of life three drops instill’d.’
What was their operation?
‘So deep the power of these ingredients pierced,
Even to the inmost seat of mental sight,
That Adam, now enforced to close his eyes,
Sank down, and all his spirits became entranced.
But him the gentle angel by the hand
The second of these lines it is which betrays the presence of laudanum. It is in the faculty of mental vision, it is in the increased power of dealing with the shadowy and the dark, that the characteristic virtue of opium lies. Now, in the original higher sensibility is found some palliation for the practice of opium-eating; in the greater temptation is a greater excuse. And in this faculty of self-revelation is found some palliation for reporting the case to the world, which both Coleridge and his biographer have overlooked.