Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 11. The Hour of Romance

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

VI. Coleridge

§ 11. The Hour of Romance

Of his place in the poetic movement of his time there is no need to speak at length. It was the hour of romance. And, of all that is purest and most ethereal in the romantic spirit, his poetry is the most finished, the supreme, embodiment. No doubt, some of the strands which went to make up the intricate web of the romantic tissue appear but faintly, if at all, in the poetry of Coleridge. Medievalism, which plays a large part in the work of Scott and others, is to Coleridge commonly no more than a vague atmosphere, such as would give the needful sense of remoteness and supply the fit setting for the marvellous which it is his purpose to hint at or openly display. Once only does he go palpably beyond this: in the shadowy picture of

  • The chamber carved so curiously,
  • Carved with figures strange and sweet,
  • For a lady’s chamber meet.
  • But, even this touch of medievalism is studiously vague; nor are the allusions to trial by combat which follow in the second part of Christabel any more precise. Contrast these with the description of Madeline’s chamber in The Eve of Saint Agnes or of the feudal castle and the moss-troopers in The Lady of the Last Minstrel; and we have the measure of the gulf which parts Coleridge from other romantic poets in this matter.

    Of the historic instinct, strong both in Scott and Byron, Coleridge, in truth, was defiantly destitute.

  • “Of all the men I ever knew, Wordsworth himself not excepted,” he writes, “I have the faintest pleasure in things contingent and transitory.… Nay, it goes to a disease with me. As I was gazing at a wall in Carnarvon Castle, I wished the guide fifty miles off that was telling me, In this chamber the Black Prince was born—or whoever it was,”
  • he adds, as well he might. It is true that, when the first cantos of Childe Harold appeared, he had the courage to assert: “It is exactly on the plan that I myself had not only conceived six years ago, but have the whole scheme drawn out in one of my old memorandum books.” But this was a pure delusion, of the same kind as that which led him to declare he had conceived a poem, with Michael Scott for hero, much superior to Goethe’s Faust; with this difference, that, whereas Faust lay within his field of vision, Childe Harold, or any other poem that should make appeal to “the sense of a former world,” after the manner of Byron, assuredly did not.

    It was in the subtler, more spiritual, regions of romance that Coleridge found his home. As to his treatment of the marvellous, ever “the main region of his song,” little need be added to what has been said already. In one form or another, the theme never ceased to haunt his mind during the brief flowering time of his genius; and The Ancient Mariner, Christabel and The Three Graves stand for three quite distinct modes of approaching it. In The Ancient Mariner, the poet openly proclaims his marvels, and exults in them. In Christabel, they are thrown into the background, and conveyed to our mind rather by subtle suggestion than direct assertion. Finally, in The Three Graves, neither incidents nor persons have, in themselves, anything of the marvellous; it appears solely in the withering blight brought by a mother’s curse upon three innocent lives. It is here that Coleridge most nearly approaches the field and method of Wordsworth; whose Peter Bell—in another way, perhaps, The Thorn—offers a curious analogy with this powerful but, as usual, unfinished poem. In the homelier region, he was, manifestly, less at ease than among the marvels and subtleties of the two other poems; and it is rather there that the secret of his unique genius must be sought.

    Two things, in particular, may be noted. The indirectness by which the elusive touches of Christabel are made to work their cumulative effect may be contrasted with the directness of the method employed by Keats in his treatment of a like theme, the transformation of a serpent into the guise of a woman, in Lamia. But it is more important to bear in mind that, if Coleridge is haunted by the marvellous, it is less for its own sake than as a symbol of the abiding mystery which he, like Wordsworth, found everywhere in life, within man and around him; a sign of the spiritual presence which, in his faith, bound “man and bird and beast” in one mystical body and fellowship; a token of the love which is the life of all creation, and which is revealed to us in “the blue sky bent over all.” It is this faith which gives a deeper meaning to these fairy creations than they bear upon the surface, and which raises the closing verses of The Ancient Mariner from the mere irrelevant appendage they have seemed to some critics, to an expression of the thought that lies at the core of the whole poem. And, if this be true, his well-known retort to Mrs. Barbauld—“Madam, the fault of the poem is that it has too much moral”—would take a wider significance than has commonly been supposed. Only, the self-depreciation of the poet must not be taken more seriously than it deserves.