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

VI. Coleridge

§ 6. Influence of Wordsworth

All that endures of Coleridge’s poetry could easily be contained in fifty pages; and, with few and doubtful exceptions, it was all written during the six years when he was in constant intercourse with Wordsworth (1797–1803). The greatest of all his poems, almost the only one which stands as a rounded and finished whole, The Ancient Mariner, is an indirect tribute to the liberating influences which flowed in upon him from the elder poet. And the ode Dejection, with the lines written after hearing Wordsworth recite The Prelude, is a direct acknowledgment of the same debt. Yet, the powers were there before they were set free by the wand of the enchanter. And it may well be that he had this in mind when he wrote

  • O Wordsworth! we receive but what we give,
  • in the one poem; and
  • Power streamed from thee, and they soul received
  • The light reflected, as a light bestowed,
  • in the other. So subtle is the action and reaction in such cases that, if this were so, it would be only just. For, after all, the spirit of Wordsworth was here met and answered by one as potent as itself. And what he did for Coleridge was not to mark out the channels along which his genius was to flow, but only to loose the springs of a fountain which, till that moment had lain half frozen beneath the earth.

    A greater contrast than that between the two poets it would, indeed, be hard to imagine: the one drawing his strength from the “common things of sky and earth,” to which his vision gave a meaning they had never taken before; the other building for himself a gorgeous palace in the clouds, the colours and forms of which may have been reflected from those he had known upon the earth, but which, to us as to him, come charged with a thousand hints of an unearthly, enchanted world, known only to the spirit. As both were well aware, there is a central point where the two visions meet and blend. Biographia and the preface to Lyrical Ballads speak clearly enough to that. So, to anyone who can read beneath the surface, do the Ballads themselves. Still, what is bound to strike us first is not the resemblance, but the difference. And, however much we may recognise the former, the more we live ourselves into the world of the two poets, the less shall we be ready to make light of the latter.

    Before 1797, Coleridge had given no promise of what he was to be. “I cannot write without a body of thought,” he laments in a letter to Southey (11 December, 1794). And the “thought” his poetry embodied had little to distinguish it from what we might expect in the more highly wrought forms of prose. Indignation at the social wrongs of the old order and the wickedness of its rulers, pity for the outcast and oppressed, bitter cries to the Spirit in whom alone is the harmony which can resolve the discord—these form the staple of such poems as Religious Musings and Ode to the Departing Year; and the style, stiff with Miltonic phrases, rich in echoes of Gray and Collins, is no more original than the matter. Byron was not far wrong when, in his early satire, he mocked at the bard “to turgid ode and tumid stanza dear.” But the scoff leaves the true Coleridge, the Coleridge of Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner, utterly untouched.

    With these poems, the first-fruits of his friendship with Wordsworth, we are in a different world. It is hard to believe they can have come from the same man. The “body of thought” and the imagery which hung round it like an illfitting garment have both vanished. Every idea presents itself unbidden as an image; and every image suggests a world of wonder and enchantment—the world of which he holds the key as no poet has done before or since, and in which, as poet, he was, henceforth, to have his home.