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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

We are still content to assign to Coleridge


A

more full account of the appearance of Coleridge's work than is desirable or indeed possible in most cases here has been given, because it is important to convey some idea of the astonishingly piecemeal fashion in which it reached the world. To those who have studied the author's life of opium-eating; of constant wandering from place to place; of impecuniousness so utter that, after all the painstaking of the modern biographer, and after full allowance for the ravens who seem always to have been ready to feed him, it is a mystery how he escaped the workhouse; of endless schemes and endless non-performance--it is only a wonder that anything of Coleridge's ever reached the public except in newspaper columns. As it was, while his most ambitiously planned books were never written at all, most of those which did reach the press were years in getting through it; and Southey, on one occasion, after waiting fifteen months for the conclusion of a contribution of Coleridge's to _Omniana_, had to cancel the sheet in despair. The collection, after many years, by Mr. Ernest Coleridge of his grandfather's letters has by no means completely removed the mystery which hangs over Coleridge's life and character. We see a little more, but we do not see the whole; and we are still unable to understand what strange impediments there were to the junction of the two ends of power and performance. A rigid judge might almost say, that if friends had not been so kind, fate had been kinder, and that instead
of helping they hindered, just as a child who is never allowed to tumble will never learn to walk.

The enormous tolerance of friends, however, which alone enabled him to produce anything, was justified by the astonishing genius to which its possessor gave so unfair a chance. As a thinker, although the evidence is too imperfect to justify very dogmatic conclusions, the opinion of the best authorities, from which there is little reason for differing, is that Coleridge was much more stimulating than intrinsically valuable. His _Aids to Reflection_, his most systematic work, is disappointing; and, with _The Friend_ and the rest, is principally valuable as exhibiting and inculcating an attitude of mind in which the use of logic is not, as in most eighteenth century philosophers, destructive, but is made to consist with a wide license for the employment of imagination and faith. He borrowed a great deal from the Germans, and he at least sometimes forgot that he had borrowed a great deal from our own older writers.

So, too, precise examination of his numerous but fragmentary remains as a literary critic makes it necessary to take a great deal for granted. Here, also, he Germanised much; and it is not certain, even with the aid of his fragments, that he was the equal either of Lamb or of Hazlitt in insight. Perhaps his highest claim is that, in the criticism of philosophy, of religion, and of literature alike he expressed, and was even a little ahead of, the nobler bent and sympathy of his contemporaries. We are still content to assign to Coleridge, perhaps without any very certain title-deeds, the invention of that more catholic way of looking at English literature which can relish the Middle Ages without doing injustice to contemporaries, and can be enthusiastic for the seventeenth century without contemning the eighteenth.[6] To him more than to any single man is also assigned (and perhaps rightly, though some of his remarks on the Church, even after his rally to orthodoxy, are odd) the great ecclesiastical revival of the Oxford movement; and it is certain that he had not a little to do with the abrupt discarding of the whole tradition of Locke, Berkeley and Hartley only excepted. Difficult as it may be to give distinct chapter and verse for these assignments from the formless welter of his prose works, no good judge has ever doubted their validity, with the above and other exceptions and guards. It may be very difficult to present Coleridge's assets in prose in a liquid form; but few doubt their value.


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