Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 2. The French Revolution

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

VI. Coleridge

§ 2. The French Revolution

Up to this time, there is nothing beyond the doubtful evidence of a school exercise to show that the revolution in France had roused any deep interest, or even attention, in his mind. Now, under the tenser will of Southey, he became a fiery revolutionist, of a brand, however, peculiarly his own. In hatred of Pitt and the war, he was, no doubt, at one with the other Jacobins of the time. But the Pantisocracy, which the two friends beat out between them, ran decisively athwart the main stream of revolutionary aspirations. It was intended only for the select few; it was no part of a general scheme of social reconstruction. Again, the “Jacobinism” of Coleridge, though not that of Southey, was always strongly charged with a mystical and religious element, which stands in the sharpest contrast with the purely secular, often atheist, temper more common among the reformers of that day. Lastly—and here, once again, he joins hands with Southey—the whole creed and being of the young convert were drowned in a flood of sentiment which woke in him, for the first time in good earnest, the need of poetic utterance, and which at once sets a barrier between him and most of the leading figures among the rebel band: Godwin, for instance, or Holcroft, or even Thelwall.

It was in pleading the cause of Pantisocracy that he first discovered—to himself, perhaps, as well as to others—his amazing powers of eloquence. His letters of that time are full of boyish delight in the discovery: “Up I arose, terrible in reasoning” is a typical sentence. And, so long as he could convince, or even vanquish, his opponents, it is clear that he did not much trouble himself to put his convictions into act. Even his breach with Southey, who soon became lukewarm in the cause, would seem to have partly sprung from an uneasy sense that he, too, had said more than he was willing or able to make good, and from the consequent impulse, very natural though not very just, to prove that some one else was yet more guilty than himself. Still more ominous, even in an age of overwrought sentiment, is the sentimentalism of his letters. “Since I quitted this room,” he writes on his return from the fateful visit to Oxford, “what and how important events have been evolved! America! Southey! Miss Fricker! Yes, Southey, you are right. Even love is the creature of strong motive. I certainly love her.” It is small wonder that the love which began as “the creature of strong motive”—that is, Southey’s fiat—should have ended disastrously for both. A year later (October, 1795) the marriage duly took place.

The poetry of these years (1794–6) is a mirror of the man: eloquent, loose-girt, strongly inclined to preach; in all things, the very reverse of the inspired pieces soon to follow. It is, doubtless, the sincere expression of the generous convictions and aspirations which he held in common with others. But it lacks the individuality which is the soul of poetry; and, only in one passage—some three or four lines of The Eolian Harp—does it offer even a faint promise of the works by which he lives. It is a glorified version of sermons such as Hazlitt heard in the enchanted walls of the Shropshire chapel. It has nothing in common with The Ancient Mariner, or Christabel, or even the ode Dejection.