The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 6. Hartley Coleridge

Nearly the eldest, the most famous by birth and promise, but, in a way, the most unfortunate, was Hartley Coleridge. There is neither space nor necessity here to tell over again the pitiful story of the promise of his youth, recorded not merely by his father but by men so little given to mere sentimentalism as Southey and Wordsworth, and of the lamentable failure of his manhood. It is permissible to think that he was harshly and rather irrationally treated at Oriel. If a probationer fellow disqualifies himself by drunkenness, he does not deserve a solatium of £300, and, if he deserves a solatium of £300, his fault can scarcely have been one of a hopelessly disqualifying nature. But, however great may have been the shock of disappointment at this disgrace, and at the loss of the life of studious ease for which alone he was fitted, it cannot have caused, though it may have determined and rendered incurable, that fatal paralysis of will which he inherited from his father in an aggravated form. This not merely hampered him in schoolmastering—that is not surprising—but stunted and made abortive the poetical and critical genius which he certainly possessed. He did attain, by good luck, by kindness of friends and by his own indifference to elaborate comfort, a life, if not of studious ease, at least of almost entire, or very slightly taxed, leisure, with considerable facility for poetic and other composition. On the margins of books and even newspapers, as well as in a few finished papers, he showed that he possessed a critical faculty not much short, on individual points, of his father’s or of Hazlitt’s; and he also wrote verse. But a fanciful eugenist might have argued that Hartley only inherited that portion of poetical spirit which his father had shown before the child’s own birth. The greater part of Hartley’s poems certainly makes one think rather of the Coleridge before 1797 than of the poet of The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan and Christable. He knew his limits (“I am one of the small poets”), though the beautiful and touching piece Poietes A poietes

  • No hope have I to live a deathless name—
  • half contradicts its own assertion: and to it may be added the fine sonnet to Shakespeare (which, with Matthew Arnold’s companion poem in verse and Dryden’s short description in prose, may be ranked for combined adequacy and brevity, on a thousand times’ attempted subject), the striking pair on Youth, A Medley, the most Shakespearean of Shakespearean imitations,
  • When I review the course that I have run;
  • the Homer, almost as good as the Shakespeare, the sonnet on the extraordinarily difficult subject Prayer and one or two others. The “sonnet’s narrow ground” just suited Hartley; for, though the far-brought fancies of his youth did not wholly desert his age, they found no power in him to carry them further still, or shape them into abiding and substantial form. Nor is it too charitable, too fanciful, or too obvious, to assign part, at least, of his failure to his time—a time with the old assisting convictions or conventions broken down and the new not firmly set.