The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VI. Coleridge

§ 1. Early Years

COLERIDGE survives for us as poet: a poet unique in inspiration, unique, also, if sadly fitful, in achievement. But he was also philosopher, critic, theologian, moralist, talker—above all, a talker. And, with the strongest will in the world, it would have been hard for one so variously endowed not to dissipate his genius. Given a will exceptionally infirm, the wonder is that he should have left so much, rather than so little, as a monument of what he was.

The strange complexity of his nature, reflected, as it is, in the whole tenor of his life, is a challenge to all who love to follow the mysterious windings of the soul. His character is an enthralling, as well as a deeply pathetic, study in itself. And it may even be that we shall find it throw some light upon his genius, as a poet.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in October, 1772; two years after Wordsworth, one year after Walter Scott. He was crossing the threshold into manhood at the time when the French revolution was rousing the more active minds to revolt against the traditions of the past: a revolt which, in his case as in others, extended to things literary no less than to those social and political. He reached middle life with the reaction which followed the downfall of Napoleon. He died (1834) in the period immediately succeeding the arrest of that reaction: some dozen years later than Keats and Shelley; ten years after Byron; two years after Walter Scott. And, of all the movements connected with those names and events, there was not one, unless we except the creations of Keats and Shelley, which did not, whether by way of action or reaction, leave some trace upon his soul.

From his father he inherited a reverence for verbal niceties which went with him throughout life; a curious strain of pedantry, which crops up in the most unlikely places; above all, a dreamy nature, which always made him a stranger and pilgrim among the bustling figures and harsh incidents of daily life. To his mother, a woman of keen practical instincts, he does not seem to have owed much beyond the priceless boon of affection. And even this was largely lost to him when, on the death of his father, he was despatched, according to the practice even then too common in English households, to school (Christ’s hospital) at the age of nine (1781). Henceforth, he was to see his family only at the rarest intervals; and the outlet of home affections was virtually closed.

Even as a child, he had laid hold on all the books—especially, imaginative works—that came within his reach. At school, he became a prodigy of youthful learning and philosophy: “logician, metaphysician, bard,” the “inspired charity boy” of Lamb’s wistful recollections. For a time, as he tells us—and it was not for the last time—the “bard” was quite driven out by the “metaphysician.” And it needed what we should now consider the rather weak stimulus of Bowles’s sonnets to rouse him from “this preposterous pursuit” (1789). The remedy, such as it was, proved undeniably efficacious. For the next five years, sentiment, of the kind represented by Bowles, was the most powerful factor in his growth.

In the excitement of Cambridge life (1791–3)—partly, too, under the spell of love for Mary Evans—his whole being seems to have expanded. But there was nothing to mark him off from the ordinary student of talent until, under the spur of debt or ill-starred love, or both, he suddenly bolted from the university and enlisted in a regiment of light dragoons (December, 1793). After four months of this ludicrously unsuitable employment, he was discharged, by the efforts of his friends, and readmitted, with due penalties, to his college. Some two months later (June, 1794) began that acquaintance with Southey, then an Oxford undergraduate, which was deeply to colour the next few years of his life.