Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 10. The Poetry of Nature; Anima Poetœ

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

VI. Coleridge

§ 10. The Poetry of Nature; Anima Poetœ

This was the golden age of “the poetry of nature”; and Coleridge may claim his place in it with the best. It is a place entirely to himself; and it depends upon two qualities. The first is a faculty of minute and subtle observation, which he may have learned, in the first instance, from Wordsworth, but which he fostered to a degree of delicacy to which neither Wordsworth himself, nor, perhaps, any other “worshipper of nature,” Keats excepted, ever quite attained. The “creaking of the rook’s wing” and the branchless ash,

  • Unsunned and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
  • Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
  • Fanned by the waterfall,
  • in This lime-tree bower, my prison, and that “peculiar tint of yellow-green” which marks the sunset sky in the ode Dejection, together with whole poems such as The Nightingale, bear witness to this extraordinary power. And, if more were wanted, it is supplied in abundance, though rather as raw material than as poetic creation, by the notes written when he was once more in constant communion with Wordsworth (1803), and published in the book which, of all others, throws most light upon the secret springs of his genius, Anima Poetæ (pp. 34–52). Nor does this command of minute detail in any sense bar the way to an equal mastery of broad, general effects. What picture was ever painted with broader brush than that of the ice-fields or the tropical ocean in The Ancient Mariner? What general effect was ever caught more precisely than that of the moon-light “steeping in silentness the steady weathercock” of the same poem, or of April as the month “of dark brown gardens and of peeping flowers” in the ode Dejection? It may be doubted whether full justice has even yet been done to this side of the poet’s genius.

    Yet, even this quality, great though it be, would have availed little, if it had not gone hand in hand with one of a very different order. With such a store of observed images at his command, there must have been a constant temptation to lavish it at every turn. Nothing is more surprising than the reserve, the sleepless sense of poetic fitness, with which it is employed by Coleridge. Even this, indeed, does not give us the whole truth. It is not only that such images recur seldom; but that, when they do, they are lifted into a rarer atmosphere, a more remote region, than that of mere outward vision. In all his greater poems—The Ancient Mariner, perhaps, alone excepted—we are made to feel, and we should hardly have entered into their spirit unless we did feel, that the outer world is presented to us not directly, but through a veil of mystery, which softens all that is harsh in outline or colour; by a kind of second sight, which rather recalls objects, once familiar, to the memory, than offers their actual image to the eye. “Sir George Beaumont,” he notes in Anima Poetæ, “found great advantage in learning to draw from nature through gauze spectacles.” And, with a success which we may be very sure Sir George never approached, he seems to have applied a like process to the forms of nature, as reflected in his poetry. Not that his eye was ever shut even to the crudest effects of the “inanimate cold world.” The very chemists’ jars of “blue and green vitriol,” as reflected in the stagnant reaches of a London canal, win an entry in his note-book. But when they appear in his poetry, it is—or, did dates allow, it would be—as the “witch’s oils” that “burnt green and blue and white” around the waterlogged vessel in the “charmed water” of the tropical sea. Nothing, in short, that he found in the outer world attained its rightful value for him until, “by sublimation strange,” it had passed into the “realm of shadows” which Schiller conceived to be the true region both of poetry and of action.