Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 3. Coleridge’s Friendship with Wordsworth

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

VI. Coleridge

§ 3. Coleridge’s Friendship with Wordsworth

It was the genius of Wordsworth—and, with Wordsworth, we must always think of his ‘exquisite sister’—that first revealed him to himself. It was in daily intercourse with a stronger spirit than his own—first at Stowey (1797–8), then, more fitfully, in the lake country (1800–3)—that all his enduring poetry was composed. The spell of Wordsworth, however, went far deeper than this. It not only awakened the younger poet to creative energies which had hitherto lain asleep. It was a transforming influence upon his whole cast of thought, upon the whole character of his soul. His whole nature was roused, for the first time, to a full consciousness of its powers; and powers of which he had hitherto given no suspicion were suddenly called to light. A sense of the beauty of outward things, as deep as Wordsworth’s, but still more delicate and more subtle; a sense of the boundless mystery of life—the inner yet more than the outer life—and a power of interpreting it in terms of thought: these were the two gifts which came to him with this new birth; and, however idly he may have used them, they remained with him to the end. Well might he say that “a new earth and a new heaven” were now “given to him in dower.” For he saw the world with a keener and more radiant vision than had ever been granted to him before; and he saw into it more deeply. In the full sense of the terms, he became, for the first time, both philosopher and poet.

That his use of these magic gifts was not what it might have been, is too clear. But it is only just to remember that this applies more to his work as philosopher than as poet. Poetry “comes not with observation.” And, if that be true, in a measure, of all poetry, of none is it so true as of that to which the peculiar genius of Coleridge was manifestly ordained. Is it reasonable to suppose that any poet could have gone on living for ever in an air so rarefied as that of The Ancient Mariner, or Kubla Khan, or Christabel? Given circumstances so happy as almost to amount to a miracle, perhaps he might. But the miracle did not happen to Coleridge; and, even if his will had been as strong as it was weak, there is no warrant that it would have happened. To condemn him on this score, however much he himself would have accepted the condemnation, seems, therefore, unwarrantably harsh. But his other gifts lay in a region more under his control. And, had he been a man of ordinary resolution—above all, had he not let himself become the slave of opium—there was nothing to prevent him from accomplishing a giant’s work in philosophy and criticism. In criticism and the theory of criticism, he might have done for his own country the double work which was done for Germany by Lessing and Hegel, and something more besides. In philosophy, he might have recast and even extended the massive fabric of Kant. As it is, in neither field has he left more than a heap of disjointed, but imposing, fragments.