Story type: Essay
Beneath the blaze of a tropical sun the mountain peaks are the Thrones of Frost, this through the absence of objects to reflect the rays.
What no one with us shares, seems scarce our own–we need another to reflect our thoughts.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel T. Coleridge was a thinker, and thinkers are so rarely found that the world must take note of them. John Stuart Mill, writing in Eighteen Hundred Forty, assigned first place among English philosophers to Jeremy Bentham, incidentally mentioning that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was Bentham’s only rival.
In philosophy there is an apostolic succession. We build on the past, and all the centuries of turmoil and travail which have gone before have made this moment possible. There has never been any such thing as “the fall of man”; for the march of the race has been a continual climb–a movement onward and upward. Were it not for Coleridge and Bentham, we could not have had Buckle, Wallace and Spencer, for the minds of men would not have been prepared to give them a hearing. “Half the battle is in catching the Speaker’s eye,” said Thomas Brackett Reed; and a John the Baptist to prepare the way is always necessary. Without Coleridge to quietly ignore the question of precedent, and refuse to accept a thing without proof, and ask eternally and yet again, “How do you know?” Charles Darwin with his “Origin of Species” would have been laughed out of court. Or probably had Darwin been persistent we would have consigned him to the stocks, burned his book in the public square, and with the aid of logical thumbscrews made him recant.
Even as it was, the gibes and guffaws of the press and pulpit came near drowning the modest, moderate voice of Darwin; and for a score of years, his reputation as a scientist seemed to be trembling in the balance. Yet today the man who would seriously attempt in an educated assembly to throw obloquy upon the doctrine of Evolution and the name of Charles Darwin would find himself speedily listed with Brudder Jasper of Richmond, Virginia. The Church now, everywhere, has its Drummonds, who build on Darwin and use his citations as proof; and Drummond merely expressed what the many believe–no more.
The man who has dared to think for himself and voiced his thought–the emancipated man–has been as one in a million. What usually passes for thought is only the repetition of things we have heard or been told. We memorize, repeat by rote and call it thought.
With the Church and State in control of food and clothes, and with spears, clubs, knives and guns ready to suppress whatsoever seemed dangerous to their stability, it is a miracle that men have ever improved on anything–for progress has been for centuries a perilous performance. To question a priest was blasphemy. To reason with a judge was heinous. To think and decide for yourself was to invite torture and death.
And all this was very natural, simply because the superior class who monopolized the good things of earth were obliged, in order to enslave and tax men, to make them believe that their power was derived from God. And thus was taught the “divine right of kings,” the duty of submission, the necessity of belief and the sinfulness of doubt. The source of all knowledge was declared to be a book, and the right of interpretation of this book was given to one class alone–those who sided with and were a part of the Superior Class.
The reason the race has progressed so slowly is because the strong, vigorous and independent have been suppressed, either by legal process, or exterminated through war, which reaps the best and lets the weak, the diseased and the cowards go.
Those who doubted and questioned have been deprived of food and clothes, disgraced, mobbed, robbed, lashed naked at the cart’s tail, burned at the stake, or separated from their families and transported beyond the sea to be devoured by wild beasts, die in jungles, or toil out their lives in slavery.
But still there were always a few who would doubt and a few who would question; and in the early part of the Eighteenth Century in England the government was being put to severe straits to cope with the difficulty. Lying in the Thames were receiving-ships on which were crowded men and women to be transported. When the ship was full, crowded to her utmost, she sailed away with her living cargo. From Sixteen Hundred Fifty to Seventeen Hundred Fifty, over forty thousand people were sent away for their country’s good. The hangman worked overtime, all prisons were crowded, and the walls of Newgate bulged with men and women, old and young, who were believed to be dangerous to the stability and well-being of the superior class–that is, those who had the right to tax others.
Finally, the enormity of bloodshed and woe involved caused a sort of concession on both sides to be agreed upon. Oppression continued will surely lead to a point where it cures itself, and the superior class in England, with a wise weather-eye, saw the reef on which they were in danger of striking. They heard the breakers, and began to grant concessions–unwillingly of course–concessions wrung from them. The censorship was abolished, reform bills introduced, the rights of free speech and a free press were partially recognized. The clergy, taking the cue, began to preach more love and less damnation; for the pew ever dictates to the pulpit what it shall preach. Thus general relaxation was in order to meet the competition of rival sects and independent preachers that were springing up; for although creeds never change, yet their interpretation does, and liberal sects do their work, not by growing strong, but by making all others more liberal.
Thus the latter part of the Eighteenth Century witnessed a weakening of both sides through compromise. The schools and colleges were pedantic, complacent, smug and self-satisfied; by giving in a few points they had absorbed the radicals, and the political protesters had been bought off with snug places in the excise. Pretended knowledge passed for wisdom, dignity paraded as worth, affectation and hypocrisy patronized virtue. And Coleridge appears upon the scene, a conservative, with a beautiful innocence and an indifference to all pretended authority and asks, “How do you know?”
* * * * *
The number of people who have written their names large in literature, who were the children of clergymen, is no mere coincidence. Tennyson, Addison, Goldsmith, Emerson, Lowell, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Coleridge–you can add to the list to suit. Young people follow example, and the habit of the father in writing out his thoughts causes others of the family to try it, too. Then there is an atmosphere of books in a rectory, and leisure to think, and best of all the income is not so great but that the practise of economy of time and money is duly enforced by necessity. To be launched into a library and learn by absorption is a great blessing.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Seventeen Hundred Seventy-two, the son of the Reverend John Coleridge, of Ottery Saint Mary, a small village of Devonshire. The rector was also a schoolmaster, just as all clergymen were before division of labor forced itself upon us. This worthy clergyman was twice married, his first wife bearing him three children, the second ten. Samuel was the last of the brood–the thirteenth–but his parents were not superstitious.
The youngest in a big family, like the first, is apt to have a deal of love lavished upon him. The question of discipline has proved its own futility, and when a baby comes to parents approaching fifty, depend upon it, that child transforms the household into a monarchy, with himself as tyrant. This may be well and it may not.
Little Samuel Taylor seemed to be aware of his power; he evolved a wondrous precocity and ruled the rectory with a rod of iron. When he was five he propounded questions that shook the orthodoxy of the worthy vicar to its very center.
Yet, remarkable as was the intellect of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the family would not have remained in obscurity without him. In fact, the very brightness of his fame caused the excellence of his brothers to be lost in the shadow. His brother James became the father of Henry Nelson Coleridge, who married his cousin Sara, the daughter of our poet.
To anticipate a little, it is well enough here to say that the daughter of Coleridge was a woman of remarkable excellence, and if you wish to disprove the adage that genius does not transmit itself she is a good example to bring up–even though there is a difference between fact and truth. James Coleridge was also the father of Mr. Justice Coleridge, himself the father of Lord Chief Justice Coleridge.
And since iconoclasm is not out of place in an essay on Coleridge, it can also be stated that when Sara Coleridge married her cousin she did a wise thing. The marriage was a most happy one, and the children of these cousins have shown themselves to be beyond the average. And once, certainly not with his daughter in mind, Coleridge debated the question of consanguinity with Charles Lamb, and proved to his own satisfaction at least that the marriage of cousins was eminently sane, proper, just and right, and fraught with the best results for humanity.
The only indictment that can be brought against the father of Coleridge is that he was a zealous Latin scholar, and proposed that the term “ablative” be abolished as insufficient, and in its stead should be used that of “quale-quare-quiddative case.” He was a simple, amiable, excellent man who did his work the best he could, and was beloved by all the parish. As to the excellence of the established order of things he had no doubts–government and religion were divine institutions and should be upheld by all honest men.
As to the vicar’s wife we know little, but enough of a glance is given into her character through letters to show that she had in her make-up a trace of noble discontent. She was not entirely happy in her surroundings, and the amiable ways of her husband were often an exasperation to her, rather than a pleasure–even amiability can be overdone. He never saw more than a mile from home, but her eyes swept England from Cornwall to Scotland, and few men, even, saw so far as that a hundred years ago. The discontent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the heritage of mother to son. When Samuel was nine years of age the father passed away. The widow would have been in sore financial straits had it not been for the older children, and even as it was, strict economy and untiring industry were in order. Out of sympathy, Mr. Justice Buller, who had been a pupil of the Reverend John Coleridge, proposed to secure the youngest boy a scholarship in Christ’s Hospital School, and so we find him entered there, July Eighteenth, Seventeen Hundred Eighty-two. This was a year memorable in the history of America; and the alertness of the charity boy’s intellect is shown in that he was aware of the struggle between England and the Colonies. He discussed the situation with his schoolfellows, and explained that the mother country had made a mistake in exacting too much. His sympathies were with the Colonies, but he thought submission on their part was in order when the stamp-tax was removed and that complete independence was absurd–the Colonies needed some one to protect them.
Such reasoning in a boy of ten years seems strange, especially in view of the fact that a noted professor of pedagogy has recently explained to us that no child under fourteen is capable of independent reasoning.
But it is quite certain that young Coleridge’s opinions were not borrowed, for all the lad’s acquaintances, who thought of the matter at all, considered the Americans simply “rebels” who merited death.
Coleridge remained at Christ’s Hospital for eight years, and before he left had easily taken his place as “Deputy Grecian.” Charles Lamb has given many delightful glimpses of that schoolboy life in the “Essays of Elia.”
Middleton, afterward Bishop of Calcutta, called the attention of Boyer, the master, to Coleridge by saying, “There is a boy who reads Vergil for amusement!” Boyer was a strict disciplinarian, but he was ever on the lookout for a lad who loved books–the average youth getting out of all the study he could.
The master began to encourage young Coleridge, and Coleridge responded. He wrote verses and essays, and was a prodigy in memorizing. According to Boyer’s idea, and it was the prevailing idea everywhere then, and is yet in some sections, memorization was the one thing desirable. If the subject were Plato, and the master had forgotten his book, he called on Coleridge to recite. And the tall, fair-haired boy, with the big dreamy eyes, would rise and give page after page, “verbatim et literatim.”
* * * * *
Before Coleridge went to Cambridge, when nineteen years old he had taken on that masterly quality in conversation that made his society sought, even to the last. Lamb has told us of the gentle voice, not loud nor deep, but full of mellow intonations, and bell-like in its purity.
Such a voice, laden with fine feeling, carrying conviction, only goes with a great soul. No doubt, though, the young man had grown into a bit of a dictator, and this habit of harangue he carried with him to College. To talk enabled him to think, and expression is necessary to growth. So the habit of argument with Coleridge seemed Nature’s method of developing his powers of mental analysis. No more foolish saying was ever launched than, “Children should be seen and not heard.” From lisping babyhood Coleridge talked, and talked much. When he was twenty, at Cambridge, he drew the boys to his room, until it was crowded to suffocation, just by the magic of his voice, and the subtle quality of his thought. His questioning mind went right to the heart of things, and in his divisions and heads and subheads even the professors could not always follow him. Let us hope that he himself always knew what he was trying to explain.
He discussed metaphysics, theology and politics, and very naturally got to treading on thin ice.
In theology his reasoning led him into Unitarianism, then a very fearful thing; and in politics he dallied with Madame la Revolution.
A polite note from the Master of the College, suggesting that he talk less and follow the curriculum a little more closely, led him straight to the Master, with whom he proposed to argue the case, or publicly debate it. This was terrible!
Stephen Crane at Syracuse University, a hundred years later, did just such a thing. He sought to argue a point in the classroom with Chancellor Symms.
“Tut, tut!” said the Chancellor. “Have you forgotten what Saint Paul says on that very theme?”
“Yes, I know,” replied the best catcher ever on the Syracuse Nine; “yes, I know what Saint Paul says, but I differ with Saint Paul.” And Stevie, unconsciously, was standing on the well-lubricated chute that landed him, soon, well outside the campus.
The authorities did not admire the brilliant young Coleridge, full of his reasons and prolix abstractions. He was attracting too much attention to himself, and gradually gathering about him a throng of admirers who might disturb the balance of things. He was there anyway only through sufferance, and an intimation was given him that if he were not willing to accept things as they existed, and as they were taught, he had better go elsewhere.
Piqued by his treatment and feeling he had been misunderstood and wronged, he suddenly disappeared.
Some months afterwards, an acquaintance found him in a company of dragoons, duly enlisted in His Majesty’s service, under an assumed name.
The authorities at Jesus College were notified, and knowing that such a youth was out of place serving as a soldier, and feeling further a small pang of regret possibly for having driven him away, a plan was set on foot to secure his discharge. This was soon brought about, and doubtless much to Coleridge’s relief. Erelong he found himself back at Cambridge–a little subdued, and a trifle more discreet, for his rough contact with the workaday world.
A journey to Oxford, to visit an old friend, proved a pivotal point in his life. The fame of Coleridge as a poet had gone abroad, and the literary fledglings at Oxford sought to do the visitor honor in the proper way. Among others whom he met on this visit were Robert Southey and Robert Lovell, both poets of considerable local fame.
Lovell had been married but a few months before to a young woman by the name of Fricker. Southey was engaged to a sister of the bride, and there was still a third sister fancy-free. The three poets became fast friends. They were all radicals, full of ambition to make a name for themselves, and all intent on elevating society out of the ruts into which it had fallen. All had suffered contumely on account of advanced ideas; and all were out of conceit with the existing order.
They discussed the matter at length, and decided to set the world an example, by founding an ideal colony and showing how to make the most of life.
Coleridge had long been interested in America, and from an acquaintanceship with sundry soldiers who had helped fight the battles of George the Third in the New World, he had gathered a rather romantic idea of the country. The stories of returned sailors and soldiers, told to civilians, are seldom exactly authentic. And Coleridge the poet, bubbling with the effervescence of youth, argued that a home on the banks of the Susquehanna, with love and books and comradeship, was the ideal condition.
The matter was broached to the three sisters Fricker, and they of course responded–what woman worthy of the name of woman would not? And so the arrangements were fast being made, and as a necessary feature the three poets were duly and legally married to the three sisters, and Eden was to be peopled with the best.
A date was arranged for sailing, but some trifling matter of finance delayed the exodus–in fact, certain expected loans were not forthcoming. Coleridge put in the time lecturing and preaching from Unitarian pulpits. He also tried his hand as editor, but the publication scheme failed to bring the shekels that were to buy emancipation. The innate contrariness of things seemed to be blocking all his plans.
Meanwhile we find Lovell drifting off into commercialism. That is to say, Barabbas-like, he had turned publisher. Gadzooks! What would you have a man with a wife and baby do? Live on moonshine–well, well, well!
Death claimed poor Lovell before he could make a success either of commerce or of art.
Coleridge moved up to the Lake District, and at Keswick, near where the water comes down at Lodore–or did before the stream dried up–he rented rooms of a kind friend by the name of Johnson, who owned Greta Hall. Southey was writing articles for London papers. He received a guinea a column, and when he wrote a poem, as he did every little while, he sent it to a publisher who returned him a little good cash.
Southey’s wife went up to Keswick on a visit to see her sister, Mrs. Coleridge. Southey followed up to Keswick, and rather liked the situation. The Southeys and the Coleridges all lived together as one happy family.
Southey was writing poetry and getting paid for it; and beside this had a small income. Coleridge allowed Southey to buy the supplies, and when he went away on tramp lecturing tours he felt perfectly safe in leaving his family with Southey.
While up that way he met a young man, a native, by the name of Wordsworth–William Wordsworth–and a poet, too.
Wordsworth had a sister named Dorothy, and this brother and sister lived together in a little whitewashed stone cottage, built up against the hillside at Grasmere, a village thirteen miles from Keswick. Coleridge liked these people first-rate and they liked him. He used to go down to visit them, and they would all sit up late listening to the splendid talk of the handsome Coleridge. William said he was the only great man he had ever met, and Dorothy agreed in the proposition.
Coleridge was discouraged: the world did not care for his work, and the men in power had set their faces against him–or he thought they had, which is the same thing. There was a conspiracy, he thought, to keep him down; and Wordsworth should have advised him to join it, but did not.
Dorothy Wordsworth was a most extraordinary woman–she was gentle, kind, low-voiced, sympathetic. She was not handsome, but she had the intellect that entitled her to a membership in the Brotherhood of Fine Minds. She knew the splendid excellence of Coleridge, and could follow him in his most abstract dissertations; and if his logic faltered she could lead him back to the trail.
Dorothy Wordsworth admired and pitied Coleridge; and from pity to love is but a step.
But Coleridge was not capable of a passionate love–the substance of his being was all absorbed in abstract thought. And yet Dorothy Wordsworth attracted him as no other woman ever did. He forgot his wife, Sara, up there at Southey’s. Sara was a better-looking woman than Dorothy, but she lacked intellect. Her life was all bound up in housekeeping and going to church, and the petty little round of daily happenings to neighbors and friends. The world of thought and dreams to her was nothing. She loved her husband, but his foolish foibles vexed her, and his lack of application prompted her to chide him. And at such times he would turn to his friends at Dove Cottage for sympathy and rest.
They used to tramp the hills, and discuss philosophy, and recite their poems the livelong day. It was on one such jaunt that out of the ghost of shoreless seas they sighted the “Ancient Mariner.” Then Coleridge went ahead, completed the plot and gave the poem to the world. And once he said, half-boastfully, to Dorothy: “This old seafaring poem is valuable in that it is a tale no one will understand, but which will excite universal interest. Only the perfectly sane and sensible is dull.”
Wordsworth had read somewhat of the works of the German philosophers, and as he and his sister had a little money saved up they decided to go over and attend the lectures at the University of Goettingen for awhile. Coleridge had nothing in the way to prevent his going, too, save that he didn’t have the money. However, he wanted to go and so decided to lay the case before the sons of Josiah Wedgwood. These young men had been schoolfellows of Coleridge at Cambridge, and once he had gone home with them and so had met their father.
And right here comes a very strong temptation to say not another word about Coleridge, but merge this essay off into a sketch of that most excellent, strong and noble man, Josiah Wedgwood. Here is a man who left his impress indelibly on the times, and whose influence outweighed that of a dozen prime ministers. The potter is gone, but he lives in his art, so we still have the best and purest and noblest of the soul of Josiah Wedgwood.
This man had assisted Coleridge at Cambridge, and it was to his sons Coleridge looked for help to realize his Susquehanna dream of Utopia. But the Wedgwoods knew the hazy, moonshine quality of the project and made excuses.
Coleridge now appealed to them for assistance in a saner project, and they supplied him the money to go to Goettingen.
His stay of fourteen months in Germany gave him a firm hold on the language, and a goodly glimpse into the philosophy of Kant, Leibnitz and Schleiermacher. When Coleridge returned to England, he went at once to see his interesting family. Rumor has it that Mrs. Coleridge, in addition to caring for her own little brood and assisting in the Southey household, had also been working in the Keswick lead-pencil factory for a weekly wage of twelve shillings. The philosopher did not much like this lowering of dignity, and said so mildly. This led to the truthful explanation that he had hardly done his duty by his family in allowing them to shift for themselves or be cared for by kinsmen; and therefore advice from him was out of place. In short, Southey intimated that while he would care for his sisters-in-law he drew the line at brothers-in-law. And Samuel Taylor Coleridge drifted up to London (being down) to see if something would not turn up.
His first task there was to translate “Werther,” but the work did not seem to go. Grub Street took up the brilliant talker, and for a time he gave parlor lectures and filled the air of thought and speculation with his brilliant pyrotechnics. The force of his mind was everywhere acknowledged, but someway he did not seem to get on. Men who have managed the finances of a nation often have not been able successfully to control their own; and more than once we have had the spectacle of one who could do the thinking for a world failing in the humdrum duties of a citizen and neighbor. Coleridge tried various things, among others a secretaryship that took him to Malta, but the lack of system in his habits and his absent-mindedness made him the prey and butt of “practical” men.
* * * * *
When Carlyle said that no more dreary record than the lives of authors existed, save the Newgate Calendar, he spoke truth.
That the lives of most authors is a series of misunderstandings, blunders, heart-burnings, tragedies, is a fact. The author is a man who diverts and amuses us by doing the things we would do if we had time; and if we like him it is only because he expresses the things we already know. His is a hard task, requiring intense concentration–a concentration that can only be continued for a short time without the absolute burning out of existence.
To think one’s best and write out ideas is an abnormal operation. The most artistic work is always done in a sort of fever or ecstacy, which in its very nature is transient. To hunt and fish and dream and to work with one’s hands are all very natural; but to sit down and think and then express your thoughts by the artificial scheme of writing on paper is a dangerous operation. If carried to excess it shall be paid for by your life.
Coleridge had turned night into day in his hot zeal to follow the winding, dancing mystery of existence to its inmost recess. At times he had forgotten to eat or sleep; and then to reinforce despairing nature he had resorted to stimulants.
Digestion had become impaired, circulation faulty through lack of exercise, so sleeplessness followed stimulation. Then to quiet pain came the use of the drug that brings oblivion. And lo! thought burned up brighter than ever and all the dreams of youth and twenty came trooping back.
Coleridge had made a discovery. He thought he was getting the start of God Almighty; but he wasn’t, for men have tried that before, and are trying it today, and many know not yet that we are strong only as we cling close to the skirts of Mother Nature and follow lovingly in her ways.
From his twenty-ninth year we find Coleridge a wreck in mind and body; shuffling, sick, disheartened, erratic, uncertain, yet occasionally brilliant. He tramped the streets, feared and shunned. His money was gone, his power of concentration had vanished. In search of bread he met an old-time friend, Doctor Gillman.
“Gillman,” said Coleridge, “I am sick and helpless–look at me!”
“Why don’t you come to my house and live with me?” asked the kind friend.
“Gillman,” said the poor man, “Gillman, I am on my way there!”
So Gillman brought him to his house up at Highgate and took care of him as a child. And there he remained, the pride and pet of a group of brave, thinking men and women.
He lived on for thirty years, under the kindly, skilful care of his friend, but all the real work of his life was done before he was thirty. Occasionally the old fire would flash forth, and the wit and insight of his youth would shine out. Keats, Shelley, Lord Byron, and others strong and great sought him out to hold converse with him. And so he existed, a sort of oracle, amiable, kind and generous–wreck of a man that was–protected and defended by loving friends; while up at Keswick, Southey cared for his wife and educated his children as though they were his own.
“I am dying,” said Coleridge to Gillman in July, Eighteen Hundred Thirty-four; “dying, but I should have died, like Keats, in youth and not have made myself a burden to you–do you forgive me?” We can guess the answer.
The dust of Coleridge rests in Highgate Cemetery, just a step from where he lived all those years. He, himself, selected the place and wrote his epitaph. The simple monument that marks the spot was paid for by kind friends who remembered him and loved him and who pardoned him for all that he was not, in memory of what he once had been.
* * * * *
To a young man from the country, who makes his way up, no greater shock ever comes than the discovery that rich people are, for the most part, woefully ignorant. He has always imagined that material splendor and spiritual gifts go hand in hand; and now if he is wise he discovers that millionaires are too busy making money, and too anxious about what they have made, and their families are too intent on spending it, ever to acquire a calm, judicial mental attitude.
The rich are not the leisure class, and they need education no less than the poor. Lord, enlighten thou our enemies, should be the prayer of every man who works for progress: give clearness to their mental perceptions, awaken in them the receptive spirit, soften their callous hearts, and arouse their powers of reason.
Danger lies in their folly, not in their wisdom; their weakness is to be feared, not their strength.
That the wealthy and influential class should fear change, and cling stubbornly to conservatism, is certainly to be expected.
To convince this class that spiritual and temporal good can be improved upon by a more liberal policy has been a task a thousand times greater than the exciting of the poor to riot. It is easy to fire the discontented, but to arouse the rich and carry truth home to the blindly prejudiced is a different matter. Too often the reformer has been one who caused the rich to band themselves against the poor.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a Tory who defended the existing order on the plea of its usefulness.
He approached the vital issue from the inside, taught the conservative to think, and thus opened the eyes of the aristocrats without exciting their fears or unduly arousing their wrath.
Self-preservation prompts men to move in the line of least resistance. And that any man should ever have put his safety in peril by questioning the authority of those able and ready to confiscate his property and take away his life is very strange. Such a person must belong to one of two types. He must be either a revolutionist–one who would supplant existing authority with his own, thus knowingly and willingly hazarding all–or he is an innocent, indiscreet individual, absolutely devoid of all interest in the main chance.
Coleridge belonged to the last-mentioned type. Genius needs a keeper. Here was a man so absorbed in abstract thought, so intent on attaining high and holy truth, that he neglected his friends, neglected his family, neglected himself until his body refused to obey the helm. It is easy to find fault with such a man, but to refuse to grant an admiring recognition of his worth, on account of what he was not, is an error, pardonable only to the rude, crude and vulgar. The cultivated mind sees the good and fixes attention on that.
Coleridge formulated no system, solved no complex problems, made no brilliant discoveries. But his habit of analysis enriched the world beyond power to compute. He taught men to think and separate truth from error. He was not popular, for he did not adapt himself to the many. His business was to teach teachers–he conducted a Normal School, and taught teachers how to teach. Coleridge went to the very bottom of a subject, and his subtle mind refused to take anything for granted. He approached every proposition with an unprejudiced mind. In his “Aids to Reflection,” he says, “He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and then end in loving himself better than all.”
The average man believes a thing first, and then searches for proof to bolster his opinion. Every observer must have noticed the tenuous, cobweb quality of reasons that are deemed sufficient to the person who thinks he knows, or whose interests lie in a certain direction. The limitations of men seem to make it necessary that pure truth should come to us through men who are stripped for eternity. Kant, the villager who never traveled more than a day’s walk from his birthplace, and Coleridge, the homeless and houseless aristocrat, with no selfish interests in the material world, view things without prejudice.
The method of Coleridge, from his youth, was to divide the whole into parts. Then he begins to eliminate, and divides down, rejecting all things that are not the thing, until he finds the thing. He begins all inquiries by supposing that nothing is known on the subject. He will not grant you that murder and robbery are bad–you must show why they are bad, and if you can not explain, he will take the subject up and divide it into heads for you.
First, the effect on the sufferer. Second, the evil to the doer. Third, the danger of a bad example. Fourth, the injury to society through the feeling of insecurity. Fifth, the pain given to the families of both doer and sufferer. Next he will look for excuses for the crime and give all the credit he can; and then finally strike a balance and give a conclusion.
One of Coleridge’s best points was in calling attention to what constitutes proof; he saw all fallacies and discovered at a glance illusions in logic that had long been palmed off on the world as truth. He saw the gulf that lies between coincidence and sequence, and hastened the day when the old-time pedant with his mighty tomes and tiresome sermons about nothing should be no more. And so today, in the Year of Grace Nineteen Hundred, the man who writes must have something to say, and he who speaks must have a message. “Coleridge,” says Principal Shairp, “was the originator and creator of the higher criticism.” The race has gained ground, made head upon the whole; and thanks to the thinkers gone, there are thinkers now in every community who weigh, sift, try and decide. No statement made by an interested party can go unchallenged. “How do you know?” and “Why?” we ask.
That is good which serves–man is the important item, this earth is the place, and the time is now. So all good men and women and all churches are endeavoring to make earth heaven; and all agree that to live, now and here, the best you can, is the fittest preparation for a life to come.
We no longer accept the doctrine that our natures are rooted in infamy, and that the desires of the flesh are cunning traps set by Satan, with God’s permission, to undo us. We believe that no one can harm us but ourselves, that sin is misdirected energy, that there is no devil but fear, and that the universe is planned for good. On every side we find beauty and excellence held in the balance of things. We know that work is needful, that winter is as necessary as summer, that night is as useful as day, that death is a manifestation of life, and just as good. We believe in the Now and Here. We believe in a power that is in ourselves that makes for righteousness.
These things have not been taught us by a superior class who have governed us for a consideration, and to whom we have paid taxes and tithes–we have simply thought things out for ourselves, and in spite of them. We have listened to Coleridge, and others, who said: “You should use your reason and separate the good from the bad, the false from the true, the useless from the useful. Be yourself and think for yourself; and while your conclusions may not be infallible they will be nearer right than the opinions forced upon you by those who have a personal interest in keeping you in ignorance. You grow through the exercise of your faculties, and if you do not reason now you never will advance. We are all sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be. Claim your heritage!”