February 22, 2018

Coleridge's "Great and Useless Genius"

On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one. Over the last years Coleridge continued to write in his Christian-philosophical-sage vein (Aids to Reflection, 1825; Church and State, 1830), but he was decades away from his great poems and literary criticism, and equally estranged from many once close to him, such as his friend and partner Wordsworth. Though living in semi-seclusion in his Highgate rooms, Coleridge's fame and his reputation for brilliant conversation caused many to visit; when a young Thomas Carlyle came calling in 1825, he found Coleridge "a kind good soul, full of religion and affection and poetry and animal magnetism," but "a great and useless genius" who in conversation "wanders like a man sailing on many currents." The critic William Hazlitt wrote that, "If Mr Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer," though he did concede that for all Coleridge had failed at gathering the promised "immortal fruits and amaranthine flowers," he had not gone Establishment-rotten, like Wordsworth and Southey.

The failure of talent or will is put down, in part, to Coleridge's return to opium. This habit was facilitated by a sympathetic Highgate chemist, who would let Coleridge in through a side door to receive "Tinct. of Opium" in fennel water, or in nitric acid, or in something called "syrup of Marshmallow." In an 1825 sonnet entitled "Work Without Hope," Coleridge alludes to the addiction, the Hazlitt criticism, and a deeper mystery:
    . . . Yet well I ken the banks, where Amaranths blow,
    Have traced the fount whence streams of Nectar flow.
    Bloom, o ye Amaranths! bloom for whom ye may --
    For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams! away!
    With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
    And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
    Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
    And Hope without an object cannot live.
His papers abound with various attempts to explain or address or reverse the evidence of his fading powers, all of them charming and Coleridgean. In his Notebooks he can be mystical and obscure: "The Will of the Chaos -- its dark disactualizing, clinging Self-Contrariety suspended, and forced asunder to become actual as opposites -- Light and Gravity. Yes! This supplies the link that was missing...." In one letter he describes his thoughts as fledgling birds, "mature enough to climb up & chirp on the edge of their Birth-nest" but not to fly even so far as a "perch on the next branch." In another he writes that his "inward Ear" still hears "broken snatches of sweet Melody, reminding me that I still have within me which is both Harp and Breeze." Another letter moves the same thought to a different season: "For in this bleak World of Mutabilities, & where what is not changed, is chilled, and in this winter-time of my own Being, I resemble a Bottle of Brandy in Spitzbergen -- a Dram of alcoholic Fire in the centre of a Cake of Ice." Designing his tomb, he rejected the figure of a Muse, and of a broken harp, finally deciding on an old man under an ancient yew tree; one of his last poems, "Love's Apparition and Evanishment," contains the figure of
    ...a lone Arab, old and blind,
    Some caravan had left behind,
    Who sits beside a ruin'd well
    Where the shy sand-asps bask and swell....
In the epitaph he wrote for himself we are told
    ...Beneath this sod
    A poet lies, or that which once seem'd he--
    O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C....
In one late letter he offered an alternative epitaph, (one with a glance at the last lines in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"):
    "In truth he's no beauty!" -- cried Moll, Poll and Tab,
    But all of them owned -- He'd the gift of the Gab.
All of the above are referenced in the last chapter of Richard Holmes's highly praised Coleridge biography (vol. 1, 1989 (Whitbread Prize); vol. 2, 1998).

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